Learning The Social Language

Being an international student isn’t easy, especially when you are still mastering a new language. And though learning a new language academically can be difficult, sometimes mastering the social language of a new culture can be even harder.

I’ll never forget when my “English Language Learners for Education” professor walked in and began teaching the content in Chinese, just to prove a point. By using the strategies she taught us we were able to understand most of what she wanted us to do.

However, she began using a phrase that was not a part of the keyword guide. It was not in our previous class exercises, and she did not provide any picture cues or gestures. We could not go further in the lesson; we were hopelessly stuck.

The word was amusement park. She wanted us to write a persuasive essay about why we should have an amusement park in our city. The only problem was that amusement park wasn’t a word we had learned yet. It’s a more casual, social term that one can only pick up by being immersed in the culture.

We had full understanding of the content surrounding the subject of our essay. However, it was impossible for us to move forward because we had not been taught the most important word in the essay itself.

This exercise showed that a student can struggle academically, when really it’s just a lack of understanding more casual, social words due to a language barrier. Ultimately, it drove home two very important points for me as an educator:

1. Trying to truly understand can take tremendous effort, and isn’t just about being “smart”
2. Social language is just as important as academic language.

It’s estimated that a child in America growing up speaking just English has the full comprehension and use of average of 600 words by their third birthday. These words serve as their foundation in collecting new vocabulary along the way; tripling every year between the ages of 3 and 10.

When a non-native speaker sets out to learn English, they have to learn at an exponential rate to be proficient.

They can’t do this alone.

Children have their parents to help them learn the first 10,000 or so words. Likewise, language learners need supporters to help expose them to new words and become comfortable using them.


How native speakers can help…

Photo by Anna Vander Stel courtesy of Unsplash

As a native speaker, you can help a non-native speaker by…

  • Using small gestures to signify objects you are talking about
  • Pulling up pictures on your phone when talking about items a non-native speaker may be unfamiliar with
  • Check in with non-native speakers if they appear to need help, and take the time to ask if you can be more clear
  • Include language learners in social activities, even if you’re worried they won’t be able to follow the conversation. The invitation is important. If they’re comfortable coming, even just listening will help them learn the language
  • Allow for one on one conversations, as group settings can be difficult for language learners to get a word in

Also, consider narrating what you’re doing when you’re around an English language learner. I once met a refugee who recalled how nervous he was when he went with some of his fellow high school friends to go Salt River Tubing. It wasn’t the river that scared him, but rather it was when they stopped at a local gas station that he began to panic. He didn’t know what they were doing there, or what was expected of him. Shelves of goodies were not something he was familiar with in his home country, and he was nervous about trying to use his money.

Had one of his friends narrated what they were doing there, what he should do, and how he should pay, it would have made the exchange much less stressful.

Helpful tips when learning a new language

Photo by Ben White courtesy of Unsplash
Photo by Ben White courtesy of Unsplash
  • Keep a journal of new social words, or words that aren’t things you might learn in a classroom. You can even draw picture cues to help you learn these words.
  • Keep a list of words or phrases you’ve heard that you don’t understand. Then, ask a friend or teacher to explain them.
  • If you’re in a classroom and you don’t understand something, try to ask for clarification immediately. Don’t wait until the end of the lecture.
  • Talk! Narrate everything you do. It sounds silly but it will help you become a more proficient speaker.
  • Listen to your peers’ conversations, and don’t be afraid to speak up and join in. Remember to learn by being actively involved.
  • Engage in two-way conversation, where someone is asking you questions and you are answering back. Talk about everyday things, work, school, weather, sports, see what new discoveries come up.

I hope native and non-native speakers alike found this article helpful. Please share your ideas too. Comment below and tell me what has worked for you!

Dani Wilson holds master degrees in education and curriculum development. She is a certified reading specialist, experienced classroom teacher, and curriculum consultant. After the birth of her twin babies this year, Dani added Mom to her daily roles. She is happy to share her knowledge, resources, and positive attitude on the misadventures of parenting on her site She loves connecting with her readers, and encouraging them to contact her. Dani gives special thanks to her husband, who supports her in pursuing all her dreams.

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