Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Case for Compulsory Language Education for Immigrants

The functioning of a healthy democracy and society requires that all members of that society feel a part of it.  They can have complaints, arguments, but they need to still feel part of it.

There are several things that indicate I believe that we don’t have a healthy democracy at this point in our history.  The one is the percentage of people who don’t vote.  Typically 40-45% of the eligible voters don’t vote, even in a presidential election which gets the highest voter turnout.  Why?  People often say they don’t feel their vote makes a difference; in various ways they indicate they are politically estranged.

But when you look at who doesn’t vote … 20-somethings, Hispanics, and those making less than $30,000/yr are much less likely to register and vote than others … the more fundamental reason is likely that they don’t feel part of the system, part of society.  Why?  Because they don’t see themselves as benefiting from it.  That has to change.  But that’s a topic for another post.

Another, which has reached I believe a true danger point in the 2016 election, is that half of the population feels that it has no commonality with the other half.  I do not believe this is an overstatement.  I do not know if there has been any point in time, with the exception of the Civil War era, when the country has been so deeply divided.  It’s not that we haven’t often been divided 50/50, but the division has never been so sharp, the passions so visceral.

But in this post, I want to address another problem area … the percentage of Americans who can barely speak English, if at all.  America has always been a nation of immigrants.  In all the waves of immigration in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, immigrants settled in areas of a city or the country where other immigrants from their country lived and their native language was freely spoken.

But whether it was because they wanted to be proud Americans or whether they felt it was necessary if they were to get ahead in life, they made it their business to learn English.  The older generation might only learn to speak English haltingly and with a heavy accent, but the younger people always became fluent English speakers.

For most immigrants, this pattern of assimilation still holds true.  But it is not true for many Hispanics.  Why?  The main reason I believe is that there is so many of them that they comprise a culture unto themselves.  To the point that if they don’t get more than a high school education and work in the jobs available to that cohort, they don’t need English, or barely, to meet the requirements of their jobs.

According to the 2011 Census, sixty-two percent of Hispanics (not just recent immigrants; they have no published data on recent immigrants) spoke Spanish at home; the next highest were Chinese at 5%.  The other percentages are miniscule.  While a large percentage (25%) of those Hispanics did not speak English well or not at all, the data make clear that the vast majority of Hispanics in this country, even those who speak Spanish at home, are fluent in English.

But the actual number of Limited English Proficiency Hispanics is large enough that this weakens the health of our democracy because if you don’t speak the common, native language, then you do not feel part of the larger society.  You only feel part of a separate society.  

For that reason, while I am as liberal and progressive as one can be, I have always supported the proposition that immigrants must learn English to become citizens and that English should be the only language officially used … for example, on signage of all types, instruction on ATMs, elections materials, etc.  Obviously one can’t implement this “English only” standard at the current time because we have not had this education requirement.

One of the things I’ve done as a volunteer is tutor adult immigrants in English.  I’ve seen how hard it is for them to learn English.  First, it’s not an easy language.  But more importantly, they typically live in a household where English is not spoken and they associate with friends who don’t speak English, at least amongst themselves.  Many have not worked or were in menial jobs with other same-language immigrants.  

So they have lessons for an hour or two a week, but then they are immersed not in an English-speaking environment but in their native language environment, and so they make very slow progress.  (Interestingly, I haven't personally seen Hispanics in the programs I’ve been part of.)

To break this pattern, I suggest the United States needs to introduce compulsory language education for all new or recent immigrants under the age of, say, 60 who have not yet obtained U.S. citizenship.  And it needs to be sufficiently robust that it works.  It needs to be for several hours, several days a week, so that the new language can begin to take hold.  And it needs to be available at enough times so that it does not interfere with an immigrant’s attempts to find employment.

Luckily, we have an infrastructure of schools in every neighborhood in every city.  These public buildings typically go unused after the regular school day is over.  They can and should be put to use in the new compulsory language education program.

Yes, this will mean an added expense for government budgets, but it is I feel a critically important expense if we are to maintain both the health of our democracy and the character of this country.  We are not, like Canada, an historically bi-lingual country.  However, we have in many respects already become a bi-lingual country, not by virtue of the number of Hispanics who have immigrated here, but because we have not had in place systems and requirements regarding their learning English.

This must change.  And while I would not make it a requirement for those who have already become U.S. citizens, the government should make English courses readily available so that if a citizen wants to learn English, there are as few barriers as possible.

During this transition period, how should the existence of English/Spanish signage, etc., be handled?  I would suggest that after a one or two year “warning” period, all signage should revert to English only.  That is an important way of making this new requirement work.

It is important to note that this program would be targeted at and aid all immigrants in becoming productive members of our society, not just Hispanics.  I have tutored Asian and Arab immigrants.  They have been very motivated, but the obstacles to their learning English, as I indicated above, are substantial.

This proposal is not anti-immigrant and should not discourage immigrants.  It is also not against retaining immigrant culture (as a child of immigrants, I value that culture very much).  Instead, it shows immigrants clearly that we welcome you and want you to become a valued part of our country.  But that means learning the language so you can prosper and partake fully of what the country offers.

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