Opinion: ESL Classes bridge cultures, languages

The importance and influence of ESL classes shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated.


Image by Sarah Mai

by Amina Hasan

If one looks at the data on federal funding for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, one realizes the situation is far worse than imagined. As of 2020, federal funding for English-learning students has been largely flat since 2002. Twenty years have passed, which means the English Learner (EL) population has considerably increased, yet the funding has remained the same. As of 2018, nearly one-quarter of all U.S. children spoke a non-English language at home.

Now and then, you may encounter those who underestimate the importance of ESL classes and assume these classes have little to no impact on American society. Well, there were 4.85 million ELs in the United States as of 2016 (and surely this number must have increased by now), so this assumption is nonsensical. You are not talking about 10-15 students, but you are talking about millions, and these millions, once they grow up, will play an important role in the future of this society. If you underestimate the importance of ESL classes, then you are subsequently minimizing the influence of millions of people. One shouldn’t ignore the impact of one person, let alone the impact of millions of people.

Now, let’s look at these classes from a different perspective. ESL classes are a sanctuary for those who are new to the U.S. It’s where they get introduced to this new nation, language and culture; it’s there where they first discover the importance of learning a language everyone speaks outside the doors of their homes. The environment of these classes is always inclusive, amiable, inspiring and, most importantly, welcoming.  “ESL teachers not only help bridge the language barrier, they often become cultural mentors to their students as they help them navigate the many cultural differences and nuances of a new country.”

ESL classes are very rich in diversity and multilingualism. You usually find students who are multilingual, coming from families who speak more than one language. A very important thing to shed light on is it’s in this class that students try to adapt to the new country they moved to. And this could be either a slow or fast process, depending on the student’s personality, but what’s worth noting is while the students are trying to adapt to the new life, they are finding people like them during the entire school day, which means they see other people struggling like them, language-wise and culture-wise.

This is what makes this class a salvation because they know no matter how long it will take them to learn the language, they won’t find people judging them for being a slow learner or for speaking in a broken accent. As expected, students in these classes don’t know advanced words, so they use basic words that help them convey what they want to say, and that’s commendable because they’re trying to communicate in a new language. The lack of being judged is what makes them brave enough to speak in a language that’s entirely new to them.

EL students feel nostalgic about ESL classes once they leave them because it was where they planted roots as newcomers, acquired a considerable knowledge of the language, adapted to the new culture and found inspiration. A former EL student once told me, “I can’t imagine how terribly difficult it might have been had I been placed in a non-ESL class with others who spoke English as a first language. It would’ve been excruciating and stressful because it’s hard to be in a class in which you don’t understand half of what the teacher and your classmates are saying.”

Please avoid comparing ESL classes to foreign language classes students take in high school and college (yes, some people make this comparison). They are so different and incomparable for one main reason: Foreign language  classes are taught by teachers who fluently speak their students’ language (English, in this case), while ESL classes are not. Both the students and the teacher in foreign language classes can communicate perfectly in English. On the other hand, in ESL classes, the teacher speaks English and is teaching students who barely can speak it, and it’s rare that an ESL teacher can understand every spoken language in their classroom (i.e., Arabic, Spanish, Somali, Chinese, etc.). This is why ESL teachers are remarkable.

Let’s not forget the crucial, influential role ESL teachers play in society. They contribute to the great impact of EL students once they leave the classroom and become active members of their society. These teachers are the reason other teachers can communicate with former ELs and not realize that those students were once ELs.


Amina Hasan is a freshman at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.