Refusing to Learn English?
The Seoul Times
October 24, 2005

By Domenico Maceri

The letter to the editor of a Southern California newspaper railed against translation services provided by the government because some immigrants "refuse" to learn English. I don't know how many immigrants the letter writer has met or what kind of research he may have done to reach his conclusion.

As an immigrant who is well acquainted with many people from other countries, I can say categorically that I never met anyone who refused to learn English. Immigrants know very well the importance of learning the dominant language of the country. What the letter writer does not know is the challenges immigrants face in learning English.

The first one is age. Although immigrant kids will learn English like natives, those who come as adults will learn enough to get by. Some may never learn English because of low educational background in their own language. It's very difficult to learn a new language if you don't know your own very well. My mother, who is 80 years old, came to the U.S. 40 years ago. Barely literate in her native Italian, she managed to learn but a few words of English.

Speakers of European languages who have a high degree of education in their own language usually learn English well although they will always retain a foreign accent. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arianna Huffington, and Henry Kissinger will bring their accent to their grave.

Educated immigrants speaking a non-European language will also learn English but will have a hard time. It might take twice as long for an immigrant from China to learn English as compared to one from France. While English and Chinese have little in common, French and English share a number of linguistic features. These similarities simplify the process of learning English for speakers of French.

Gender also affects one's learning ability. Immigrant women, who have a tendency to stay home and care for kids, are less likely to learn than men who go to work and are forced to have some interaction with Americans.

One challenge that is common to virtually all immigrants in learning English is time. Immigrants come to the U.S. primarily for economic reasons. Thus they work long hours. It's difficult to attend night classes after having worked hard the entire day although many in fact do it.

Anyone who thinks learning a language is easy should talk with Americans who have lived overseas for many years. Most of them learn little or no foreign language. Just like it is difficult for Americans to learn other languages, it is also difficult for immigrants to learn English in part because of the particular intricacies of the language.

English pronunciation and spelling are particularly difficult. It's no wonder that spelling is a basic school subject in English-speaking countries while it does not exist in Italian, Spanish, and other relatively phonetic languages.

Although all immigrants need to learn English, Spanish-speakers have in some ways less of a need than those from other countries because Spanish is widely used in the U.S. Radio, TV, and newspapers are not easily available in Bulgarian, but in Spanish they are. Indeed it's possible to live in the U.S. with just Spanish. However, it's impossible be very successful in the U.S. without knowing English and venturing into the English-speaking world. You cannot become a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, without English. English is the key to success.

Spanish-speaking immigrants want to learn English and get an education because they understand that without doing so, they will be condemned to a life of menial work. For proof of this all one has to do is look at the large number of people attending night classes to learn English and consider the high number of commercials on Spanish TV peddling tapes and videos promising to teach English the easy way.

The fact that government provides some services in foreign languages is not a disincentive to learn English. In fact, the opposite occurs. By having access to government services, immigrants don't remain isolated in their linguistic and social ghetto. They interact with Americans and integrate faster in our culture. And that speeds up their learning English.