The United States is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants who desire to learn English. In contrast to academically-focused English language learners (ELLs), or international students, refugee and immigrant ELLs are often dealing with the stresses of poverty and/or a precarious immigration status, giving them a diverse and complex set of needs that are often not adequately met by ESL programs. Building off a foundation of Activity Theory, Sociocultural Theory, and Language Ecology, which emphasizes an approach to language learning and teaching that does not separate language from the authentic contexts from which it arises (Van Lier, 2002; Leather & Van Dam, 2003; Pennycook, 2010; Swain & Watanabe, 2012; among others), I seek to uncover and address these needs in-context through an ethnography of six Spanish-speaking immigrant ELLs in the western United States. I detail the results of an in-depth analysis of 116 hours of participant observation with these women, paying special attention to their daily routines and how, where, and why they employ English or Spanish. I show how the women's daily routines and participation in Latinx communities curtail much of their need for daily English, how they employ various strategies to get by when they do need English, and how their expressed motivations to learn English are often thwarted by their current life circumstances. I end by summarizing key observations about the ELLs in the study and making general recommendations to ESL programs for how to apply these observations.



College and Department

Humanities; Linguistics and English Language



Date Submitted


Document Type





ethnography, ethnography of communication, linguistic ethnography, TESOL, language ecology, English language learners, community-based learners, adult ESL education