How International Families Can Overcome ESL Challenges

Imagine moving to a country where you don’t speak the language. The U.S. has a huge population in this very situation.

The Pew Research center reports that there were 22.5 million adults in the U.S. who spoke Englishless than very well” in 20121. This problem can affect the entire family, both adults and children. Fortunately, there are many ways that families can get help.

I talked with Shizuna, a Japanese citizen, about some of the problems her family faced due to lack of English fluency, and how she found the right solution for her family. Shizuna, her husband, and two young kids relocated here about three years ago when a career opportunity in the United States opened for her husband. The family expects to live here until 2016.

[This interview has been edited for clarity]

Yamini Pathak: When you found out you needed to move to the U.S., did you prepare for your move in any way? Did you take any English classes, for instance?

Shizuna: Kids in Japan study English from middle school onwards. Most Japanese can read and write English pretty well, so I didn’t think I needed to take English classes when I was in Japan. However, many people, including myself, have trouble with listening to and speaking English, which requires regular practice. I did some research and spoke to my husband’s co-workers before the move. They were able to guide me to our current school district in West Windsor, NJ. The schools in this district offer a great deal of support for Japanese language students.

YP: What were some of the difficulties you faced when you first moved to the U.S.?

S: Everything was difficult. My husband and I had to overcome our shyness about speaking English. I had trouble registering my kids in school, even though the administration was very helpful. I am unable to volunteer for events and class parties at school because of communication difficulties. Doctor’s appointments are still very stressful because doctors tend to use more complicated and unfamiliar words.

My husband had trouble communicating in the workplace at first, but after we hired a personal tutor, he is now able to communicate well. By and large, people have been very helpful and patient, but we have encountered some people who showed dislike when they realized we couldn’t speak English or when we asked them to repeat what they had said. One place where we had it easy was at the bank because they had translators to help us with our needs.

YP: What problems did the kids have when settling in?

S: Fortunately, my kids were very young — in preschool and first grade when we moved. They did not have a hard time because children at that age do not really need language to make friends. Also, they were not shy about trying to speak English even if they didn’t know many words.

YP: How did you improve your English?

S: My husband and I found a private tutor through the local Japanese church who charged very reasonable fees. My local tennis group has American friends who have helped me greatly in improving my conversation skills. We watch TV in English and lots of English movies to improve our listening skills.

YP: What kind of support did your kids receive at public school?

S: Up until last year, my kids’ elementary school had a teacher who was bilingual in Japanese and English. This was of great help to them. The bilingual teacher also acted as a translator during our initial parent-teacher conferences. The school has English language tutors who would come to our home to give kids a language lesson after school.

They have a very good ESL (English as a Second Language) program at school, where my kids were separated from the rest of the class and given a lesson every day for an hour. Both children have successfully exited the ESL classroom after two years and now study with the mainstream classroom. They can correct my English now!

YP: What suggestions do you have for others trying to learn English?

S: Find a good English language tutor. You can check with friends, the local YMCA/YWCA, or national associations. You can also find tutors online through Noodle’s ESL tutor search. Local libraries, community colleges, and universities often offer free English conversation classes, as well as ESL classes that address grammar, writing, and other language skills.

You can check the website of your state’s department of education or the website of the local library. Try to make English-speaking friends. Being in social situations really helps to improve both listening and speaking skills.

YP: Thank you, Shizuna, for sharing your experience!

More ESL Resources for Kids and Adults

The U.S. government offers many free and fee-based programs through various state departments of education and departments of labor and workforce development. You can check the websites of these agencies for specific local resources.

Some options to consider for adults:

  • An interactive language learning website called Mango Languages that teaches English using different languages. Many libraries around the country allow you to use the website for free using your library card. You can check if your local library participates on this page.

  • The New Jersey Department of Education provides a list of online resources for learning English as a second language here.

  • Language learning institutes like Berlitz or ELS.

  • Little Pim has award-winning products and programs to teach kids various languages. Their products include videos, flashcards, board books, and apps for kids ranging from six months to six years old.

  • The British Council websites LearnEnglish Kids and LearnEnglish Teens have many resources for kids and teens to use at home when learning English as a foreign language. The sites also have forums where parents can get help from other users and professional English teachers.

  • Chillola.com has a page to help kids learn the alphabet, colors, shapes, and increase their English vocabulary.

Source: Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, by Brown A. and Patten, E. (April 29, 2014), Statistical Portrait of the Foreign Born Population in the United States, 2012, Language Spoken at Home and English-Speaking Ability by Age and Region of Birth: 2012, Retrieved on Oct 28, 2014.


  1. In households where the language spoken was “other than English only,” a total of 22.5 million adults spoke English“less than very well.”