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What is ESL?

By J. Beam
Updated May 23, 2024
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ESL is an acronym that is used primarily in educational settings and stands for English as a Second Language. It refers to teaching English to a person whose native or primary language is one other than English. Education laws in the United States require schools to provide ESL instruction in the classroom to any and all enrolled students whose primary language is not English.

The need for ESL programs to help U.S. students achieve educational proficiency standards in school is evident from the 2000 census, which found that close to 1 in 5 United States citizens spoke a language other than English at home. While this does not imply that those people do not also speak English, the census also found that roughly 10% spoke English either less than fluently or not at all. The primary language of these individuals was Spanish.

ESL programs in elementary and secondary school are advancing to meet the needs of the young people in the U.S. who need to learn English for proficiency success in school. Programs for adults are also advancing, but at a different rate and for different purposes. In public schools, ESL programs must meet certain state and federal requirements.

Many ESL programs for early childhood and elementary education focus on the English alphabet and phonetics through a combination of visual and auditory presentation. Computers in the classrooms play a large role in implementing programs for students of all ages. The curriculum may vary from state to state, but all states are required to provide ESL learning programs within the guidelines of federal mandates for education, including No Child Left Behind. The Internet also provides valuable resources for ESL reinforcement, especially to parents of young children, as numerous sites provide printable worksheets and games that help reinforce English basics. Further, numerous programs for adults are becoming widely available at community colleges and through distance learning programs.

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Discussion Comments

By jessiwan — On Jun 26, 2019

I agree that people who came to the US should learn English and that this is their responsibility. However, I believe that the government uses taxpayers' money to create these ESL classes because they do not want there to be illiteracy among people who will eventually become citizens. I don't want to have to pay for others (especially not illegals), either, but I believe that in this case, the government has a very good reason for doing what it does.

Also, about some people feeling that ESL is derogatory: I just think that these people are being overly sensitive. ESL implies second class citizens to snowflakes only. It simply denotes a class of learners, there is no insult intended. Come on people, let's not find offense where there is none.

By anon154477 — On Feb 21, 2011

@Anon66429: I'm calling you out on your assertion that most Americans you have met don't bother to learn good morning or thank you in your language. Most Americans I know are very conscious of the gap in both quality of life we enjoy and the standard of living we work hard to create and are reminded of just how lucky we are when we visit third world countries.

This makes us feel humble and appreciative of life in general and compels us to learn, not only the token salutations and words of appreciation that you mention, but also things like the official song or dance of the country we are visiting.

I distinctly recall being in Spain last year, in a bar, stomping my feet and clapping my hands around an authentic Sombrero that we had tossed on the floor. We followed this up by initiating an impromptu "Macarena" line dance. We insisted that the otherwise meek and timid natives join us in celebrating their national songs and dance. It was exhilarating!

By anon151986 — On Feb 12, 2011

my name is vijay. i want to do mba for u.k. but i am weak in english so how can i improve my grammar and spoken english? Please help me.

By anon96654 — On Jul 16, 2010

sir my name is diensh i want to do mba for u.k but i am weak in english so how can i improve my grammar and spoken english? Please help me.

By anon92572 — On Jun 29, 2010

I am working as a programmer in a college. The problem with me is speaking english fluently. Can you help me with this.

By Dachant72 — On Apr 15, 2010

People who come here and don't know our language were transferred from their home town to this country because the companies cannot find people here that qualify for the job they offer.

Example 1: Geologists specialized in petroleum deposits. Heck, they pay loads of money but no one here can do the job so some non-english speaking folk are transferred here. Poor guy needs to learn english and do his job at the same time. Let's get our people qualified to do high-paying jobs!

By anon77694 — On Apr 15, 2010

To enhance anon67941's comment, I would like to say that in a way you are totally right but you know that those "losers," as you call them, are making and demanding these changes due to comments from "non-losers" like yourself.

So we should all think really hard who is to blame for all the excessive law making and detail demanding. Bullies and name calling and making fun of others just to make yourself feel better makes your life everyone else's a living hell. So thank you so much for calling most of the country losers. You must be perfect.

By anon67941 — On Feb 27, 2010

The old way was to leave the child back a year in school in order to learn English. Amazingly, it worked! Ah, yes, such a lovely diverse place this America is now. I don't know how we got to 200 years old without all these losers that come in now and demand things.

By anon66429 — On Feb 19, 2010

I also lived outside of the country for 18 years, and most Americans I met never even bothered to learn "good morning" or "thank you" in the host language; they just expected everyone to cater to them in English. At least these people are willing to learn our language and if someone is willing then I am happy to help.

By anon66182 — On Feb 18, 2010

The reason the term ESL, English as a Second Language, doesn't work for the many folks coming here is that they already are speaking multiple languages. Thus English may be their third, fourth fifth, sixth, etc. language.

We in the USA are language deprived/deficient. Most of us (and I include myself) only speak one language. I like the term ELL.

By anon65867 — On Feb 16, 2010

Why should American tax dollars support these programs? If you come to this country, legally or illegally, then you, the individual, should be self motivated enough to learn the language, as I did when I lived out of this country (legally). It wasn't the responsibility of the country, it was mine.

Enough of making all the concessions to foreigners. They come here, then they have to do what most third, fourth generations of Americans had to do! Take responsibility and no more handouts!

By anon63030 — On Jan 30, 2010

i'm indian and my english is not very good. what can i do to improve it and enhance my communication, reading, and writing skills in the english language. Can ESL help me to make better my english language? please tell me.

By anon59629 — On Jan 09, 2010

i think this is ridiculous to pay for a foreigner to learn our language!

By anon43940 — On Sep 03, 2009

Does ESL refer to the people, whose second language is English, and studied in the English-speaking country, or just in his own country, for example Japan?

By anon39890 — On Aug 05, 2009

i want to learn english free. what can i do.

By anon27607 — On Mar 03, 2009

what do you think are the effects of english as our second language?

By dfrum32 — On Apr 21, 2008

As a teacher, I can tell you that the term ESL is going out of vogue. Apparently some people decided that it sounded derogatory to say that English is the second language, implying that they are second class. I think that's silly. Spanish is my second language and I would be thrilled if people acknowledged that because I put a lot of work into learning it!

Anyway, the terms that are more commonly used now are ELL for English Language Learner or LEP for Limited English Proficient. I'm sure those will change eventually in our never ending quest to be politically correct.

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