Practical Tips & Tools


4 Challenges ESL Learners Face

April 19, 2022


The US is an immigrant nation and the number of English as a second language (ESL) learners continues to increase. With this in mind, it is important for adult literacy and education programs to take into account the many language barriers these learners face and how these barriers affect learners’ literacy progress.

Immigrants and refugees face a number of challenges while transitioning into their new lives. Their diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds pose obstacles for them to thrive. These obstacles include the need to establish a place to live, travel, and manage daily tasks such as going to the store, establishing healthcare, or opening a bank account; and learn English and achieve an education.

Listed below are four challenges ESL learners face on their paths to English language proficiency and education.

Fewer English Language Models

Schools that offer ESL classes tend to be in urban areas with high concentrations of minority and economically disadvantaged students. ESL learners therefore are positioned to be highly segregated from English-speaking students.  This lessens their opportunities to hear from and interact with good models of English and peers who are native speakers.

Culture Shock

ESL learners are often faced with culture shock, which can impede their education and progress. Culture shock is anxiety that results from losing all familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. Many things can attribute to culture shock, including language barriers, social isolation, unfamiliar weather patterns, different foods, status change, and living conditions. Even a different type of education system can confuse learners and deter them from making beneficial education decisions.

Time Constraints

Due to language barriers and unfamiliarity of cultural norms such as bus schedules and pick-up locations or train and subway routes, an English language learner can find it difficult to make time for education and language learning. Because of these challenges, many learners walk to their literacy programs. Some juggle multiple jobs and taking care of families. Attending a class at a literacy program can mean learners must choose between making it to that class or eating dinner, or helping the kids with their homework and spending quality time with them.


When it comes to literacy instruction, there is a lot of interaction, conversation, and value involved. Sometimes, topics covered in instruction may focus on something culturally that ESL learners do not understand, know about, or even value. Engaging in conversation is the best practice for ESL learners to improve their skills and achieve their language and education goals, but if they feel socially isolated from the conversation, they will make little to no progress. Not only do they need English language proficiency training, but cultural knowledge and education.

Here is an example of some of these challenges, pulled from The Hour’s article, Make it easier, not harder, for adults to access education:

An immigrant comes to America in search of a better life. He does not know the language. He has neither money nor work. What he does have is a name — someone from home who’s been here longer, who helps him find a bed in a crowded apartment, and a job washing dishes at a diner. It’s far from his apartment and it pays next to nothing, but he can eat there. It’s a start.

He catches a break: The other dishwasher quits, so now he can work double shifts. Still, there’s only so far he can go without English. He learns a few words, not enough. Then someone tells him about English as a Second Language. The classroom is far from both home and work, but he goes. He’s getting by on four hours’ sleep and one meal a day, but he’s learning English now. He’s on his way.