Solving the Problem of ESOL
9% of the US population describes itself as Limited English Proficient (LEP); that is about 25 million people, many of whom would like to improve their skills.
Unfortunately, secondary education, private schools, and community sites don’t effectively meet the existing demand for flexible, relevant, and culturally responsive English programs that fit the needs of immigrant and refugee families.
Many people participate in community-based ESOL programs – these are language classes taught in libraries, public schools, churches, community centers, etc. While most of them are open-entry/open-exit, family-friendly, multi-level, and have real-world relevance, most of them are also characterized by volunteer teachers with little training or support, few resources, and unpredictable attendance.
People-Places-Things aims to solve this problem of ESOL by providing quality language and culture practice experiences for language learners, and by training people to be interculturalists.
Our programs are highly flexible and highly effective:
- flexible – because immigrant/refugee experiences are incredibly varied, and program resources are scarce
- effective – because we don’t have good examples of models that are working to deliver cultural navigation skills on a wide scale
- expandable – because there are 25 million people in the US who describe themselves as Limited English Proficient, and each one of those people needs thousands of hours of practice to become proficient
- inexpensive – since many non-native English speakers fall into lower income brackets, and the shadow system of community-based ESOL is generally no cost to learners
Learning to be Interculturists
People-Places-Things (P-P-T) began in 2008, with a vision of community building through language and culture.
At first we were mainly interested in teaching English to immigrants and refugees. And at first, grammar was the focus of our instruction. We worked very hard to try to create relevant, real-world activities for grammar practice. But we kept getting frustrated that our grammar activities wouldn’t fit neatly into the real world.
So we quickly abandoned this focus, and instead turned our focus to real-world themes. We had a pilot class in an industrial kitchen and learned some crucial lessons about situating language learning in a real-world setting:
- the language that seems important is not always the language that is important
- the real world contains a lot of communicative ambiguity
- the difficulty of real-world tasks doesn’t match the difficulty of the language structures used to describe them
- learners are highly engaged if the learning environment is relevant to their needs
- the real world is a multilevel environment – anyone can participate, and people work together
- spending time with people is crucial to language learning; people change when they meet other people
- Every culture has different expectations about learning and all of those differences do not always fit together
We realized one of the main reasons why people often take so long to learn a language, whether they study in a classroom setting or not; they are often practicing unreal language, in unreal locations, in an unreal way. So instead of trying to simplify the real world to make it fit our language teaching approach, we began to use different techniques with real-world objects and real-world settings to practice the language that went with them.
We went from trying to explain grammar through cultural examples; to exploring culture through language practice.
The skills sets that we developed are Intercultural Communication and Cultural Navigation, which includes language, but is much broader than that, encompassing code switching, lived experience, empathy and a desire to connect.
Building Bridges with Language
The US has so much ethnic and language diversity, but we are still a very segregated society on the whole, and that means there is a space for culture bridging specialists to create meaningful and lasting connections in our schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods. An example: many people who want to teach English actually want to practice their Spanish with a native speaker. Where does an English speaker find a native speaker of Spanish? They’re everywhere, but ethnic, linguistic, class and color boundaries separate us.
To make the world a better place, we have to invent new techniques for bringing people together and fostering understanding.
And this is the foundation for what P-P-T is today: a socially responsible business offering Intercultural Communication services, with a particular focus on training English speakers to use dynamic activities and real world materials to build cross cultural bridges in our communities.
People-Places-Things exists to provide intercultural communication services to the emerging America that embraces its multiethnic, multilingual identity. Our vision is living in integrated communities which nurture their language and cultural diversity.
Nuestro Negocio Es Tu Negocio
People-Places-Things is a business – A socially responsible business, delivering connection and communication no matter what your background. Bringing people together. And it’s fitting that our only start-up capital was clear intentions, lived experience, and deep relationships.