ESOL Audiences in Museums

It’s an incredible feeling to experience another country’s food, historic sites, and unique customs.  While we learn about different cultures, it is also a time to appreciate our own.  We are able to examine more closely what we highlight or deem important.  This exchange can be especially rewarding but can also conjure up feelings of discomfort, loneliness, and embarrassment while we navigate this new terrain.  These feelings are magnified when an adult or child is trying to immerse themselves in the new culture by learning that language.

English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is a tool used to ease the process of learning English.  There are many resources for Teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) that try to fuse increasing language skills with cultural knowledge.[1]  There have been studies that demonstrate successful learning with objects and visual techniques because they offer many entry points for students of varying levels of comfort or vocabulary.[2]

These same studies asked participants what they want most out of ESOL classrooms.  Overwhelmingly, students want to learn from native English speakers in real world contexts that feel authentic.[3]  It is important to remember that these students are all from different backgrounds and come with their own expectations.  When trying to accommodate such a multitude of experiences, it is easy to resort to watered down content, but that diminishes value of the lesson and self-confidence of the participants.[4]

As educators interested in audience-centered and object-based programming, it seems that working with ESOL students and teachers could be a great fit!  Museums offer a comfortable, authentic setting where people across communities can meet, share their opinions, and gain knowledge.[5]  This functions as community building so that even after the formal lesson ends, there is potential for informal relationships to continue outside of the museum or classroom.

So, the next step for museums is to foster this relationship with ESOL audiences.  Depending on the size of the museum and the surrounding community, there are many ways to go about deepening this connection.  It might make sense for larger museums to make bilingual resources (labels, pamphlets, and signs) available to create a sense of warmth and invitation.  For smaller museums, this could be achieved through outreach events to other ESOL locations.  If possible, the museum might hire an educator with ESOL experience to make this a highlight of the program offerings.  These are just a few suggestions to extend a welcome to ESOL audiences; however, the most effective method is to ask TESOL and ESOL participants in the community what will best suit their needs and interests.






3 thoughts on “ESOL Audiences in Museums

  1. Patty Arteaga

    Absolutely wonderful job on your presentation Anna! You nailed it by speaking Spanish at the beginning of your presentation to give a small glimpse of what your audience may feel amidst their confusion and use of clues to become a part of the conversation. This personally hit home given my experiences when I take my parents out to an event or a museum. They become uncomfortable and their answers monosyllabic if asked to contribute to a conversation about their experiences to an English speaker. They get by either asking me directly in Spanish or observing how others are respond to the questions. It’s not that they do not understand, it is just that they need directions to be simplified. And when I write simplified, I do not mean dumb down, but rather clear and short. That is it. Straight to the point. So thank you Anna for your subject and bringing those “voices” to the room. Mis padres les encantaria saber que no estan solos en sentirse confundidos en los museos. Mil gracias.


  2. Allison Van Gilst

    I really like the ideas you have for better engagement with ESOL audiences in a museum. I work with a little girl who is currently learning English and really does want to interact and understand. Like Patty said, it is not about dumbing down the information but rather stating it in a clear and short way. Honestly, I think this will help any audience as sometimes when I visit a museum it seems as if they could present the information in a much more simple way that still makes sense and still relates to me as an educated adult. It would be neat if museums could create some ESOL programs which help teach English while also teaching about the museum. Partnering with already existing ESOL programs could be a great way to do this.


  3. mmarines

    I really liked your idea of starting off the presentation in Spanish. Some people were able to understand to varying degrees but for many it gave us insight into just how uncomfortable a setting can be when you don’t understand what is happening and what everyone else is talking about. Most of us were able to figure out kind of what you were asking after a few rounds but weren’t quite sure. When conducting a museum program you don’t want half the group to be constantly trying to figure out what is even happening. It might be advantageous for museums to partner with community centers and/or churches to learn the languages most prominent in their community as well as hear from them what would make their visit better.



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