Famous English Language Learners Inspire Persistence

As immigrants and refugees from across the world have relocated to the U.S. over the years, the population of English language learners (ELLs) in the country has grown dramatically. According to the 2016 Current Population Survey (CPS), immigrants and their U.S.-born children now number approximately 84.3 million people, or 27 percent of the overall U.S. population[i].

English language learners in the U.S. are a diverse group, speaking many different native languages—Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese to name a few—some of which have more similarities with English than others. Initially, ELLs aspire to learn survival English as they acclimate to U.S. culture. But many famous ELLs living or working in America have far surpassed these early challenges and become iconic artists, entertainers, and even politicians. Read on to learn about their inspirational stories.

Mila Kunis

Actress Mila Kunis was born in Chernivtsi, Ukraine. She spoke only Russian when her family moved to Los Angeles in 1991. On her second day in LA, seven-year-old Kunis was enrolled in elementary school not knowing a word of English. She later recalled in a 2008 article in the LA Times: “I blocked out second grade completely. I have no recollection of it. I always talk to my mom and my grandma about it. It was because I cried every day. I didn't understand the culture. I didn't understand the people. I didn't understand the language. My first sentence of my essay to get into college was like, ‘Imagine being blind and deaf at age seven.’ And that's kind of what it felt like moving to the States.”

Kunis was discovered by an agent while taking afterschool acting classes, and soon began appearing in commercials and television series. Before she turned 15, she landed her first major role as Jackie Burkhart on the television series That '70s Show. Now 33, Kunis is fluent in Russian and English.

Diane Kruger

Actress and former fashion model Diane Kruger was born in Algermissen, Germany. As a child, Kruger dreamed of becoming a ballerina. She was accepted at the Royal Ballet School in London, but a broken knee at the age of 13 bashed her dreams. When she was a teenager, her mother sent her to student exchange programs to improve her English. By age 16 she had moved to Paris to pursue modeling. Despite being just 5’7”, she landed modeling jobs with top designers, including Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Louis Vuitton, and Marc Jacobs.

Kruger gradually shifted from modeling to acting. In 2002, she made her film debut in The Piano Player. In 2010, she won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture for her work in Inglorious Basterds. Kruger became a U.S. citizen in 2013. Today, she is fluent in German, English, and French, and divides her time between Paris, Vancouver, and Los Angeles.


Arnold Schwarzenegger

Bodybuilder, actor, and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger was born in Thai, Austria, and began weight training when he was 15. In 1967, at the age of 20, he became the youngest person to win the Mr. Universe title. When Schwarzenegger immigrated to the U.S. the following year, he spoke little English. He captured his first Mr. Olympia title in 1970, and would go on to win the title a total of seven times. After his seventh win, he retired from competition.

In the 1970s, Schwarzenegger was able to parlay his bodybuilding success into acting. His breakthrough roll came in the 1982 box-office hit Conan the Barbarian. He is perhaps best known for his role in the sci-fi thriller The Terminator.

Schwarzenegger took English classes at Santa Monica College in California. In 1979, he earned a BA by correspondence from the University of Wisconsin–Superior, in international marketing of fitness and business administration. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1983.

In 2003, Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy for Governor of California in California’s recall election. He won with 48.6 percent of the vote and was reelected in 2006 with 56 percent of the vote. Today, Schwarzenegger serves on numerous fitness and sports councils, and is working on renewable energy and fighting against global warming.


Antonio Banderas

A native of Málaga, Spain, Antonio Banderas performed in small theaters in the 1980s during Spain’s post-dictatorial cultural movement known as the La Movida Madrileῆa. It was there that he caught the eye of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. After gaining recognition for his roles in several Almodóvar films, Banderas moved to Hollywood in 1991. The following year, despite speaking minimal English, he was cast in his first American drama film, The Mambo Kings. Although Banderas had to learn all his lines phonetically, his performance as a struggling musician received critical praise. Since then, he has acted in more than 50 films, including Evita, The Mask of Zorro, and Puss in Boots.

While Banderas is now fluent in English, he still struggles with the pronunciation of certain English words: "The word that really gets me is ‘animals,’ I just can never say it properly, whenever it is in a film I have to get it changed for a synonym. In Zorro I had a line changed from 'You look like a bunch of animals' to 'you look like a collection of beasts' it worked much better, so I don't care," he said in a 2011 article with GQ Magazine.


Jackie Chan

Hong Kong martial artist, actor, film director, producer, stuntman, and singer Jackie Chan was born in 1954. His early years were spent on the grounds of the French consul’s residence in Hong Kong where his parents worked for the ambassador. In 1960, his father immigrated to Australia, and Chan was sent to the China Drama Academy, a boarding school run by the Peking Opera School. He began acting in small roles at the age of five.

In 1962, at the age of eight, he appeared in Big and Little Wong Tin Bar. In 1978, Chan starred in two films, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, which established the comedic kung fu genre and propelled him to mainstream success. In 1980, he made his Hollywood film debut in The Big Brawl. He is perhaps best known for the 1998 action comedy Rush Hour, which grossed $130 million in the U.S. alone, and made him a Hollywood star. To date, Chan has appeared in more than 150 films and has received many accolades, including an honorary Oscar for his “extraordinary achievements” in 2016.

Chan speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and American Sign Language as well as some German, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and Thai.


Djimon Hounsou

Actor and model Djimon Hounsou (pronounced JL-mon HON-sou) was born in 1964 in the West African nation of Benin. He grew up speaking French and several dialects of Goun, the Beninois language. At the age of 13, Hounsou was sent to Lyons, France, to live with his brother and study to become a doctor. Hounsou didn’t do well in school and had no interest in medicine. When he was 20, his brother threw him out of the house. With no place to live or working papers that allowed him to get a job, Hounsou found himself sleeping on benches and bathing in fountains in Paris.

After living on the streets for more than a year, someone noticed his six-foot two-inch physique and handed him a photographer’s business card. Hounsou’s photograph was circulated to modeling agencies and before long he was appearing in ads and walking the runway in fashion shows. His modeling work led to his being cast in a number of music videos, including Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” and Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do Without You.”

Hoping to break into acting, Hounsou moved to Los Angeles in 1990 and began taking drama classes. He taught himself English by listening to the narration of documentaries on cable. “The first few years when I was learning English I had to think in French before I said the things I wanted to say in English. Now I dream mostly in English. Now it’s almost the reverse. I have to think in English now to write in French sometimes.”

Hounsou’s first film appearance came in 1990 when he could not yet speak any English. He played the silent role of Sandra Bernhard’s ex-boyfriend in the screen adaption of her Off-Broadway show Without You I’m Nothing. He landed a number of small roles before being cast in Steven Speilberg’s Amistad. In his role as Cinque, he spoke only one line in English: “Give us free!” The rest of his lines were in Mende, a West African language spoken in Sierra Leone. While his native tongue, Goun, was also West African, it is no closer to Mende than English is to French. He was given just 10 days to learn Mende. Hounsou struggled to learn his lines each night, but his efforts were rewarded when he received critical acclaim and a Golden Globe Award nomination for his work. Since then, Hounsou has appeared in more than 30 films, including In America, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.


Inspiration for Today’s ELL Students

As English language learners have now become the fastest growing population in U.S. schools, Fuel Education is honored to support ELL students with curriculum and instruction to help them flourish in our culture, as these famous ELLs have. While the road to mastering the English language is a challenging one, these stories serve as inspiration for all students to persevere.

Learn more about FuelEd’s ELL program here.


[i] https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/frequently-requested-statistics-immigrants-and-immigration-united-states/#CurrentHistoricalNumbers


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