The Ultimate Guide To ESL for Frontline Workers

Rachael Nemeth
43
Co-founder, CEO
March 16, 2021

Special thanks to David Lamont for your research and contributions to this piece.

ESL for Restaurants, Facilities, and Beyond

In 2020, two billion people around the world were using English at work. English is increasingly the common language of work. English training can be an agent of change in any industry, especially in hospitality. According to the census bureau, 67 million US residents speak a language other than English at home. That is roughly the size of the population of France, or about one fifth of the US population. In the services and hospitality industries that are heavily reliant on foreign workers, that density is anywhere from one quarter to one third of all workers.

So, what is ESL anyway? Are English classes an effective tool for employee engagement? How hard is it to learn English? Where can you get English classes for restaurant workers? We'll answer these questions and more in this article. And no matter what your needs or direction are, there are several terms and approaches here you might not know yet which can support you and your team.

What does ESL stand for?

ESL stands for "English as a Second Language". It is used to describe a type of English language learning for people who don't speak English as their first, second, third (we'll talk about this in a minute) language. ESL classes are always conducted in an English speaking country. Here are some other terms you might hear:

  • EAL means "English as an Additional Language"
  • ENL means "English as a New Language"
  • ESOL means "English for Speakers of Other Languages"

Is ESL politically correct?

Not really. People from other countries are often already multilingual before they learn English. Additionally, many people do not have "a first language". Instead, they learned many languages simultaneously as young children. So, ESL is not politically correct, though it is still most commonly used in and outside of the workplace. At Opus, we use the term "English Training" which covers the scope of learning English as a new language but does not segment an employee into a category that might not accurately describe them.

What is the difference between ESL and EFL?

EFL (English as a Foreign Language), refers to English language learning conducted in a non-English speaking country. If someone who is living in Guatemala is learning English, then they are not taking ESL classes, they are taking EFL classes. This is because they aren't currently residing in an English speaking country.

What is a non-native English speaker?

This is at term you might hear to describe someone who doesn't speak English. It is also used to describe someone who doesn't speak English yet and is taking an ESL class, whether online or in person. While the term non-native English speaker is commonly used, there are other terms that are more descriptive and inclusive.

It's important to note here that the the term "immigrant" is making an assumption that an employee weren't born in the United States. Some better terms to use for employees who are taking English classes are below.

Is non-native English speaker a politically correct term?

No. It's best not to label someone who is actively learning English as anything besides a student, trainee, or learner. Other terms you should not use are "ESL" to describe a person. Saying things like "Merary is an ESL" is both not accurate and potentially offensive. That's because ESL is a type of language learning class and not a person. The terms most commonly used in the language learning industry are ELL or L2.

  • ELL means "English Language Learner"
  • EL means "English Learner"
  • L2 indicates someone who is learning English as a second language

Who is ESL for?

ESL is for any person seeking to achieve a degree of English literacy and/or proficiency. ESL programs typically cover all major communication skills -  reading, writing, speaking, listening, and pronunciation - and often use an integrated approach where all 5 skills are practiced in a lesson or course.

The needs of adult students learning English fall into 3 categories:

  • Conversational ESL - students who need to complete daily tasks, like ordering food in a restaurant or asking for directions while on the street.
  • Academic ESL - students who require a thorough, meticulous curriculum in preparation for school studies or an international exam (exchange students and international students).
  • Workplace ESL - students who are looking to up-skill professionally or need to acquire a degree of conversational proficiency in order to communicate with coworkers or customers, the results of which are higher levels of productivity, happiness, and employer satisfaction as well as financial mobility.

Is ESL just for Spanish-speakers?

Yes, as well as anyone who doesn't speak English and would like to learn. According to census data, Spanish is the most spoken non-English language in the U.S. There are 41 million native Spanish speakers and about 12 million more who are bilingual Spanish speakers. That is 16% of the US population, which makes the US the the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. In case you're curious, the next most spoken languages that are not English or Spanish are Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, French and Tagalog (pronounced tah-GAH-log) in order from largest to smallest.

Are there workplace-specific ESL classes?

1 in 3 employers already provides English training ("ESL") for their team. These are called "ESP" classes or "English for Specific Purposes". ESL for the food industry is a common type of ESP course. Here are some others you may find on the market which have been developed specifically for employees who are learning at work or who intend to get jobs in a specific field:

  • ESL for Certified Nursing Assistants
  • ESL for Health and Safety
  • ESL for Healthcare Professionals
  • ESL for Patient Care & Support
  • ESL for Manufacturing
  • ESL for Passenger Services (Aviation)
  • ESL for Cabin Crew (Aviation)
  • ESL for Aircraft Maintenance Technicians
  • ESL for Customer Service
  • ESL for IT Helpdesk & Support
  • ESL for Oil & Gas
  • ESL for Software Engineering
  • ESL for Tourism and Hospitality
  • ESL for Food & Beverage Industry
  • ESL for Investment Banking
  • ESL for Digital Marketing
  • ESL for Human Resources Professionals

Where can I find ESL for restaurants or ESL for restaurant workers?

ESL for restaurants or ESL for restaurant workers is a course that we offer at Opus. ESP is type of English language training we offer for this type of learning. When a team enrolls, you can choose to provide them with free English lessons delivered over text message or WhatsApp. We also offer ESL for custodial staff in the soft services areas of facilities management. Offering text message-based ESL classes in tandem with required employer training is an effective way to provide well-rounded employee training with an added professional development benefit.

Your team is already mobile, so meeting them where they are with micro-learning delivered on mobile can develop a cultural of inclusive training. We have 1,000+ micro-lessons across 5 levels developed by our team of subject matter experts. This means that your team can learn English in-depth and cover all 5 language skills. They can also stay focused on work-related phrases.

With ESP, what a student learns still fits within solid pedagogical structures, but the conversation, words and grammar are more aligned with their industry. In ESP for the food industry, an employee learning English might learn the phrase "Do you want the sauce on the side?" earlier than someone who is learning general English. The beauty of this method is that it's highly relevant to work and is folded into the workday. That means your team has the chance to use the words and phrases they just learned in their micro-lesson on the job immediately. Here are some more examples of ESP.

Are there free ESL classes available?

There are certainly free classes available for employee to take. This requires that you send an employee to a brick and mortar location. These classes are often run by Community-based Organizations and non-profits. While these classes are free for you and for your team, the hours can be inflexible and not aligned with work schedules.

13 Million workers in the United States have a second or third job. In 2020, about 40 percent of all family households in the United States had their own children under age 18 living in the household. While a free English class might be beneficial on the outset, it's important to remember that having to commute to a class can be an inconvenience for employees. So, have a conversation with your team and ask if they are interested and able to commit to this method.

Are there free online English classes for adults?

Yes. There are several basic online classes that are available at no cost. These are desktop-based classes and are often asynchronous which means that they are pre-recorded videos and not offered to a group of people who can learn at the same time. USA Learns offers free online English classes for adult learners.

Is DuoLingo a good, free online English app?

Language learning when you are a tourist or a casual learner is different than when you are learning for survival or work purposes. DuoLingo can aid your team in the basics of English with simple games and grammar to get them up to speed. It is a great way to get a taste of English learning, but be mindful that it does not cover the cultural and workplace-specific training that leads to knowledge transfer (aka "using the language"). There are also few opportunities to practice speaking and get direct feedback.

Is immersion the best way to learn English?

English language immersion is a great way to learn a language, especially at work. This is because work is already an immersive experience. It is critical to remember that immersion still requires an active learning mechanism like an ESL course in order for employees to analyze and transfer their new language. Thus, the value of offering English language training to your team while they are at work. When employees have an active learning mechanism at work plus an immersive language learning environment, their potential for successful understanding and use of the new language is 3 to 8 times higher than without an immersive experience.

It's important to remember that immersion does not require that someone actually speak the language. There are five skills to learn in any language: reading, writing, speaking, listening, pronunciation. So while your team learns English actively on the job and continues to be immersed in the language, they might not be ready to cross the barrier yet and start speaking. That does not necessarily mean that your team is not developing strong listening or other language skills.

How long does it take to become fluent in English?

The answer to this question depends on the goals of the learner. You'll witness some associates speak English instantly. Some people will speak and understand you better in a few weeks. Others will take several months to learn. Language acquisition includes 5 skills: reading, writing, listening, speaking, pronunciation. Some folks might pick up one skill faster than another. So, speaking might be the last skill to surface. 

To really break it down to basics, think about fluency in terms of word families. A word family is also called a "lemma". Knowing a word family means you know a root word and all its variations (or inflections): work, working worked or hot, hotter, hottest

Word family counts by level:


  • Native Speakers: 15,000 to 20,000 lemmas
  • Beginner ELLs: 800 to 1,000 lemmas

So what about everything in between? This varies significantly based on the circumstances of the learner, like where they are learning, educational background, language difficulty, instances of words learned (i.e. Do the words they are learning appear often in their everyday vernacular?). My suggestion is not to count words but to practice skill building and language functions as a means for tracking language growth.

Here is a checklist of (some!) language functions to consider:

In English, the employee can:

  • introduce themselves
  • introduce someone else
  • ask for something
  • write a list
  • tell time
  • have small talk
  • request time off
  • place an order on the phone
  • present an idea verbally
  • leave a to-do note for someone
  • summarize a 30 minute meeting
  • persuade someone
  • speculate about why something happened
  • make predictions
  • pick up on sarcasm
  • and many more!

What about the reverse? Is there such thing as SSL?

There is an expectation among hiring managers that employees should be able to speak English at a “useful” or "working" level. However, there is little expectation that people who speak English as their first language should have to learn a foreign language in order to be successful. That's there they bias lies and there are ways to curtail it. There are simple ways to meet your team halfway.

Offer language training to your team that needs or wants to learn English. At the same time, offer cultural sensitivity and cross-cultural awareness training to your team that does speak English as their first language. This first step helps develop empathy and awareness about the language learning process and how it is different from the language that a native-English speaker might learn more casually.

Is there any harm learning a new language while your ELL team learns English? Not at all! This is a great second step to empathy training and can build connective tissue among colleagues in any position.

Why should businesses to offer ESL classes to their staff?

20-30% of food industry employees in the U.S. don't speak English as their first language and 3 out of every 4  jobs created in February 2021 were at a restaurant. With the restaurant industry - the second largest employer in the U.S. - fueling economic and jobs recovery in cities and states across the country, industry operators have an opportunity to position themselves as an employer of choice. Creating a more welcoming work environment, where communication differences are viewed as a chance to build trust, loyalty and employee development, is key to increasing retention and unlocking untapped talent.

Does ESL support diversity and inclusion?

Research shows that we often look past biases against non-native English speakers. But the service industry is changing and employers are recognizing that up-skilling is synonymous with inclusive training. and English is the common language of businesses around the world. Large enterprises have adopted English as their official working language.  75% of HR leaders surveyed recently said DE&I is critical to their financial success in 2021.

The food industry is home to diverse work environments across race, age, gender, ethnicity and language. Providing ESL for employees directly impacts equity and inclusion efforts. This ensures fair and respectful treatment at work as well as equal opportunity to resources and professional advancement. Leveling the playing field as it relates to communication helps to root out biases, foster cohesion, and remove barriers that are anathema to DE&I initiatives.

Ready to explore chat-based ESL for your team?

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