Why "Make Them Learn English" Is the Key to Immigration Reform

Among the provisions in the immigration-reform proposal released by a bipartisan group of senators yesterday was a requirement that in order to get on that path to citizenship, undocumented immigrants would have to "learn English and civics." They don't detail exactly how it would happen, but presumably there'd be a test of English proficiency immigrants would have to pass, and perhaps some money appropriated for English classes. There are two things to know about this idea. First, in practical terms it's completely unnecessary. And second, in political terms it's an excellent idea. In fact, it could be the key to passing immigration reform.

The reason it's unnecessary is that every wave of immigrants follows basically the same pattern when it comes to English. People who immigrate as adults tend not to learn much beyond the most basic words and phrases, and continue to speak their native language at home. Their children grow up bilingual, speaking one language at home and another at school and eventually at work. The next generation grows up with only a little bit of the language of the old country, which they pick up from their grandparents, but they spend almost all their time speaking English. And the generation after that often knows nothing of their great-grandparents' language beyond a few colorful expressions.

That's how it has worked for one group of immigrants after another, and as Dylan Matthews reminds us, that's how it's working for the current group of immigrants. There is some variation among people who come from different places, but the basic picture is clear: you don't need to "make them learn English," because they're going to learn it anyway, or at least their children are. That's probably how it worked in your family, and it's certainly how it worked in mine. My great-grandparents, who came to America as adults, knew very little English; my grandparents, who came as children, were bilingual; my parents can follow a conversation in Yiddish but not speak it very well; and my siblings and I just know a few little Yiddish snippets. (When I was a kid my grandmother had an annoying habit of telling long, apparently hilarious stories in which just the punch line was in Yiddish, so I never knew what the hell all the older people were laughing about.)

So why is the "make them learn English" provision so politically important? Because it's the key that unlocks wide public support for immigration reform. As a group, Americans have contradictory feelings about immigration. We can't divide the country into "pro-immigrant" and "anti-immigrant" groups, even if you might be able to make such a division among politicians or talk-show hosts. Apart from a small population of hard-core nativists, most Americans acknowledge that we're all descended from immigrants of one kind or another, whether your ancestors walked across the Bering Strait land bridge, came over on a slave ship, or drove down from Toronto. They also appreciate that immigration gives our country vitality, and that immigrants are exactly the kind of hard-working, ambitious strivers that drive our economy and culture forward. But at the same time, many feel threatened when they see the character of their towns and cities change, and nothing embodies that change more than language. When people walk into a store and hear a language being spoken that they don't understand, they suddenly feel like foreigners in their own neighborhood, alienated and insecure. I'm not putting a value judgment on that feeling, but it's undeniable.

So imagine an individual citizen/voter who has those two contradictory feelings. He sincerely wants his country to welcome immigrants, and he thinks that cultural diversity is basically a good thing, but he got a little freaked out last week when he went down to the drug store and felt like he just got transported to Mexico City. He doesn't like feeling alienated, but he also doesn't like that tiny voice inside him that says "Send them back where they came from!" He knows that voice isn't right, but when he sees signs in other languages or hears other languages spoken, that voice gets a little stronger.

What the "make them learn English" provision says to him is: Don't worry, it's going to be OK. We're going to make sure that this wave of immigrants is woven into the American tapestry just like the prior waves of Irish and Italian and Chinese immigrants. They won't take America over. They'll become American.

The truth is, that'll happen whether or not we make undocumented immigrants take an English test before they can become citizens. But there's no reason not to do it. If some have to take an ESL class in order to pass, that's fine—accelerating their learning curve a little will be good for them, and the cost probably won't be too high. The real benefit, though, will be to reassure the majority of Americans whose feelings about immigration are complicated. And once you get enough of them on board, it becomes possible for risk-averse politicians to do the right thing.

Comments

Another reason this is good is that it might make it easier for some immigrants to learn English. I live in southern California, where Latino immigrants are sometimes desperate to learn English and have trouble finding classes. Haters think they don't care about learning English, but a friend of mine teaches ESL and can say with authority that they care a lot. They know it's a key to opportunity.

A great new book/ebook available worldwide, "What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to understand crazy American culture, people, government, business, language and more,” helps foreigners benefit from a better understanding, including our language. Endorsed by ambassadors, educators, and editors, it even has chapters on English grammar and speech that identify the key problems common to foreigners (and Americans!) and how they can polish their communication skills. Why is English such a monster to learn? Here's an excerpt from the book: "As you may know, English grammar rules are full of generalities and the generalities are full of exceptions. Even the exceptions have exceptions. This is why English is one of the most difficult languages to master." The book (and e-book) is filled with tips anyone can use to polish their speech and understand the key basics of English. Probably the number one problem foreigners have is slowing down when speaking English, followed by pronouncing consonants.
As the book points out, foreigners may think they know English but in many cases they have difficulty communicating to Western ears because of the common problems most have. For example, if Spanish speakers learned to pronounce the TH sound in English instead of like the DA sound, it would significantly reduce their accent. However, most struggle in their efforts and need guidance. Perhaps concerned citizens and books like this can extend a helping hand.
Here's a closing quote from the book's Intro: "With all of our cultural differences though, you'll be surprised to learn how much our countries—and we as human beings—have in common on this little third rock from the sun. After all, the song played at our Disneyland parks around the world is 'It's A Small World After All.' Peace." www.AmericaAtoZ.com

Obviously the writer doesn't know that there is already a requirement to show the ability to speak, read and write basic English and know from civics (as we say in Brooklyn) before one can become a U.S. citizen, it's part of the final interview/test before you can take the oath/affirmation of loyalty to become a citizen..

As an immigrant myself, who speaks a couple of Western European langiages, it is extremely frustrating to live in a building where the super can't speak or understand English, try telling him that there is a leak in your apartment! After all, if I learned English, why can't he?

The article shows that (too) many Americans don't know how the current system works (or rather, not works).

As for the language problem taking care of itself because every immigrant will be able to learn English: I wonder how many languages the writer knows. And how 'easy' it was for him to learn a foreign language. It's no accident that the joke is: if you speak two languages, you're bilingual, if you speak three, you're trilingual. If you speak only one language, you must be an Aermican.

I'm not anti-immigrant (how could I be) , but I wish Americans would learn a little more about the current rules. And immigrants would quickly learn at least basic English.

Adults do not pick up a second language casually, it's a major learning experience. I taught at a school that recruited Mexican teachers to teach in the public schools of Oakland; they were given 2 years to master English or to lose their right to stay in the country and to continue teaching. After 7 years and perhaps 30 teachers, only one was able to pass the writing part of the test. Most of my parents after years of residency had very little acquisition.

Good reason people learning English is it is an international language.Many people prefer English language.Many people show great interest to learn English,actually they enjoy learning English.I daily spend some time to improve my skills http://youtu.be/4iSK0x_UfkY I watch video lessons,read news papers aswell.

There is a BIG difference between: "They're going to learn anyway," and "They're never going to learn, but their kids will be bilingual and translate for them their entire lives."

There is a HUGE difference between learning the language, and depending on your children to navigate your adult encounters through social, legal, work, medical, police, court, and business situations!

The cost of immigrants not learning English is borne completely by American citizens. By the children of the immigrants, who spend a lifetime translating and interpreting adult matters instead of getting to be kids. (The translating and interpreting comes with all of the emotional fears and burdens of playing a vital role in serious matters that could dictate your family's livelihood). By the cost of paying professional translators/interpreters in courtrooms, hospitals, police stations, and welfare offices.

Have you ever gone grocery shopping, and had to wait in line because an immigrant could not communicate with the cashier? Everyone has to stand around and wait for the employees of the store to track down an employee who speaks the immigrants' language. I used to jump in and help whenever and wherever I could. But I got tired of helping people who were choosing to spend hours watching TV in their native language instead of learning English. Who were spending hours with people who spoke their language, instead of making an effort to make friends and communicate with people who spoke English. So I stopped. Instead of working for free for these immigrants, I stand in line with everyone else and just wait. Wasting my time and energy because this person can't complete a simple grocery transaction without specialized assistance.

I was reading business contracts, court documents, and writing letters on behalf of adults when I was in the 5th grade. The pressure was that the immigrants in my parents church could not afford attorneys to do this for them, were not aware enough to know that there are free legal aid services, and, of course, could not handle their problems themselves because they couldn't understand squat on the page. It was excruciating, that pressure. As a child, to be responsible for rescuing terrified, scared, panicking adults. And it's not as if I had a choice.

Allowing immigrants to come here and not speak English, and then raise children, is like allowing lazy people to come here and giving them little American slaves. To do for them what productive adults should be able to do for themselves. Especially free, proud, American adults.

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