Museums and English Language Learners

This portion explores the learning opportunities for new immigrants and/or English Language Learners. We will be considering several questions:

How is the museum community interacting with this group?

What is the most effective way to encourage growth and comfort in their new setting?

What can museums do to foster a sense of community for recent immigrants?

According to the 2012 ACS (American Community Survey), the U.S. immigrant population hovered around 40.8 million, about thirteen percent of the total U.S. population. Since then, the number of immigrants has only increased. Many of these individuals could be classified as English Language Learners, or ELLs.

The definition of an English Language Learner varies across the nation, and includes both children and adults. Typically, it is a student who is unable to communicate or learn fluently in English, who often comes from a non-English speaking home, and who often requires specialized English language instruction. This definition comes from the Greater Schools Partnership, who advocates for education reform.

So how can museums help? This article serves as a good introduction to the topic:

Julia Carr, a British museum educator, advocates for the museum’s effect on students of the English language, known as English as a Second Language (ESOL) students. Based on her interviews of ESOL tutors and museum educators, three main themes emerge:


  • Museum trips give learners self-confidence and connect them to where they live.


She says, “Integration into society depends on having that cultural capital, that understanding. Using a constructivist definition of learning — a process of active engagement with experience — I found that ESOL learners do accrue cultural capital when interacting with the material culture of their host country. How? They use their personal memories, knowledge and experience to interpret the objects they come across”.


  • Handling museum objects is a great conversation starter.


As museum educators, we know this to be true- objects can generate amazing and layered conversation. However, one docent noticed that, ‘people so want to talk about [the object] that they will fight through the language barrier to express an opinion’.


  • Museum visits help learners see the connections between cultures


Carr concludes by acknowledging that learners can reaffirm their own sense of identity, rather than being overwhelmed by their lack of English. By encouraging personal connections and the attainment of cultural capital, museums can occupy a unique space in helping English Language Learners feel more comfortable in their new home.

How can museums best reach this growing potential audience?



One thought on “Museums and English Language Learners

  1. Nicely researched and organized. I’d love to see a culminating entry where you pen your answers to the three original questions you pose in the first entry.


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