Is language learning on the job the best way to learn a new language?

By March 4, 2015Migration
Meat workers, Fletcher Abattoir (Source: SheepCRC)

Meat workers, Fletcher Abattoir (Source: SheepCRC)

One of the most famous research subjects to ever have participated in second language learning research is a man known in the literature as Alberto. In 1973 Alberto participated in a ten-month longitudinal study of his learning of various English syntactic structures, particularly questions, negations and use of auxiliaries.

At the time, Alberto was 33 years old and had moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from his native Costa Rica four months earlier. The reason Alberto is famous in the field of second language learning is because during the ten months of the research project he hardly made any progress at all in producing the syntactic structures under investigation. The theory of ‘fossilization’ – that adult language learning plateaus at a state that is different from full mastery – is to a significant degree based on the empirical research with Alberto.

Alberto is the poster boy of failure in second language learning, if you will.

Alberto’s failure to make much progress in his English is noteworthy because it flies in the face of a frequently-held assumption that ‘naturalistic language acquisition’ in an actual workplace is the best way for adult migrants to learn a new language. As it was, Alberto’s failure occurred while Alberto held not only one but two jobs, and worked both night and day.

Alberto is not unique. A large cross-national European study conducted in the 1970s investigated the ‘naturalistic acquisition’ (i.e. immersion language learning without formal instruction) of Dutch, English, French, German and Swedish by work migrants with six different first languages (Arabic, Finnish, Italian, Punjabi, Spanish, Turkish) and came to similar conclusions: the task of learning a language while communicating in that language is an immensely challenging one.

The learner ‘has simultaneously to learn and communicate whilst achieving other communicative and non-communicative goals, in relation to target language speakers who can be more or less understanding, friendly, helpful or dominant.’ (Perdue 1993, p. 227)

The second language learning research with Alberto and migrant workers in Europe was not primarily interested in language learning at work. The focus of that research was on linguistic and cognitive aspects of second language learning by adults who had little or no prior knowledge of the target language, had low levels of formal education and were blue collar work migrants, or, in the parlance of the time, ‘guest workers.’ It just happened to be the case that these research participants spent a lot of their time at work and work was of central importance in their lives. And the research findings for this group are unambiguous: in the absence of formal language instruction, language learning at work has poor outcomes.

Since the research with Alberto and migrant workers in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, international work migration has increased exponentially, as have so-called ‘3D-jobs’ where migrant workers are concentrated. ‘3D’ stands for ‘dirty, dangerous and difficult’ although the third ‘D’ is sometimes also taken to stand for ‘demeaning,’ ‘dull’ or ‘demanding.’ ‘3D jobs’ is a translation of Japanese kitanai, kitsui, kiken (汚い, きつい, 危険 ‘dirty,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘dangerous’). Internationally, 3D-jobs are associated with migrant labor. In 2013, about one third of all international migrants were unskilled or low-skilled.

For this population, entering the workforce does not in itself constitute an opportunity to practice English as Australian research with meat workers from the Philippines demonstrates. Since the mid-1990s the Australian meat processing industry has increasingly relied on migrants to fill labor shortages as employment conditions in the industry have deteriorated. Large meat processing enterprises hire meat workers in bulk from countries such as Brazil, China and the Philippines. The meat processing plant in a rural town in Queensland where the research took place hired almost exclusively from the Philippines.

On the job, opportunities to practice English were exceedingly rare: to begin with, work was organized in a conveyor-belt system where any communication carried the danger of holding up the line. Communication was thus detrimental to work and in conflict with workplace goals.

With communication during work extremely limited by the nature of the work, communication opportunities were restricted to break times. However, because most workers at the plant were from the Philippines, most communication during break times took place in Tagalog. Many workers felt too exhausted to say much – in any language – during break time, as one interviewee explained:

Ah pag- breaktime na, kain nalang kami tapos pahinga. Kung minsan gusto ko na ako lang mag-isa doon sa ano, para makapagpahinga ako sinasandal ko iyong likod ko eh. [When it is our break time we eat and then have some rest. Sometimes I want to be by myself and rest my back against a tree.] (Piller & Lising 2014, p. 48).

With communication opportunities – and thus English language learning opportunities – severely limited during regular work and break times, there remained only one context in the workplace where language was involved and that was during staff meetings and in communication with management. These occasions were extremely rare and management had installed a Filipino go-between who was asked to interpret on such occasions.

In sum, for these migrant workers language learning opportunities at work were virtually non-existent. In fact, the challenge of multi-tasking that second language learning researchers have noted – the challenge to learn a new language while communicating in that language and to communicate in a new language while learning that language – largely did not even present itself to these workers because communication simply is not part of butchering and meat-packing work.

The same is true of most 3D jobs: the nature of the work is such that very few opportunities for any kind of language use exist. Without tailored language training programs at work (such as this German program) most workplaces are far from ideal language learning environments.


Perdue, C., Ed. (1993). Adult Language Acquisition: Crosslinguistic Perspectives (Vol. 2: The results). Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Piller, I., & Lising, L. (2014). Language, employment, and settlement: Temporary meat workers in Australia Multilingua, 33 (1-2) DOI: 10.1515/multi-2014-0003 [this article is available for open access directly from the Multilingua website]
Schumann, J. H. (1978). The pidginization process: a model for second language acquisition. Rowley, MA, Newbury House.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • I would say learning a language on the job would only expose one to the vocabulary related to the industry. What about terminology that you would not necessarily hear on the job?

  • That is the problem with language learning at work. People are too busy doing their jobs, focusing on doing their tasks right that they don’t focus much on learning a new language even if it means being able to communicate better with co-workers and improve productivity. If a company is to hire migrant workers, they should set a day or at least a couple of hours teaching their workers a common language for better communication and information dissemination.

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