New Paper Addresses the Importance of Language Learning

October 18, 2016

Jennie Murray, Director of Integration of Programs
Kathy Tran, Policy and Advocacy Assistant Director

One language sets you in a corridor for life.
Two languages open every door along the way.
                               —Frank Smith, Psycholinguist

language-learning-for-a-global-societyThe American Action Forum estimates that by 2020, the United States will be short 7.5 million workers across all skill levels. Improving the English and technical skills of immigrants who are limited English proficient (LEP) is one way to meet the talent needs of employers.

The National Immigration Forum’s newly published paper, Immigrants and the Importance of Language Learning for a Global Society, highlights strategies and recommendations that promote the ability of people who are limited English proficient (LEP), and the ability of native English speakers, to reach their full career potential in a bilingual workforce.

Programs that provide contextualized English training for the worksite develop immigrants’ vocabulary specific to an industry or employer. Combining contextualized English language and technical skills training helps immigrants build both sets of skills concurrently.

Furthermore, like other adult learners, many immigrants face barriers to successfully completing a degree or credential program, such as juggling work and family responsibilities and lacking reliable transportation and child care. Offering integrated English language and technical skill development programs at the worksite can address these barriers by reducing or eliminating the need for additional traditional classroom instruction.

One promising example is Skills and Opportunity for the New American Workforce, a project of the National Immigration Forum in partnership with the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education and Miami Dade College, funded by the Walmart Foundation. During its pilot, Skills and Opportunity for the New American Workforce provided customized, contextualized English language instruction for current frontline retail workers at three sites: Kroger in Houston, Publix in Miami, and Whole Foods in the greater New York City area. Training was provided at the sites and at local community colleges and was delivered in person and virtually. The curriculum incorporated vocabulary and concepts relevant to the retail industry, such as customer service, store safety, technology and team communication.

Participants experienced increased English language fluency, leading to improved confidence and better productivity. An evaluation found that the vast majority of participants demonstrated an increase in English language skills: 91 percent of participants in Houston, 83 percent in Miami and 67 percent in New York. Moreover, 53 percent of all participants expressed they had “improved a lot” in their understanding of spoken English, 90 percent reported being on track to improving communication skills at and outside of work, and 95 percent indicated they were doing their job better because of improved English skills. Participants also experienced career advancement after completing the training: 20 percent received promotions in Miami, 19 percent in Houston, and 11 percent in the New York City area. Additionally, across all sites, 79 percent of participants reported being on track for a promotion.

Research shows that one characteristic of exemplary contextualized English language programs at the worksite is that the employer’s practices “promote employee participation in ESL at the workplace, either voluntarily or as a requirement by the firm.” Skills and Opportunity for the New American Workforce had strong support from its employer partners. These partners provided corporate-level leadership, input to curriculum development, supported employee participation through flexible schedules, and donated training space at the worksite. In a survey following the training, 88 percent of employer partners reported that participants demonstrated improvement in store productivity as a result of increased language skills and quality of work, reduced time per task and lower employee turnover at participating sites, thus reducing the turnover-associated cost of recruiting and training new workers.

 Expanding contextualized English programs at the worksite in combination with technical skills training is a win-win for immigrant workers and employers. Immigrants are able to accelerate their English and technical skills development, saving time and money as they increase their competitiveness in the labor market. Employers benefit from accessing a qualified workforce, which can have direct effects on their business operations.

Please see Immigrants and the Importance of Language Learning for a Global Society to learn about other models that prepare workers to compete in a bilingual labor force. The paper also addresses policy recommendations to support the expansion of contextualized English language at the worksite; encourage partnerships among private, public, nonprofit and educational organizations to provide programs; increase funding for effective programs; and promote foreign language learning and retention.