Top 10 Reasons Immigrants Should be Required to Learn English
It’s a privilege to become a naturalized citizen anywhere, or to simply immigrate and begin a new life. In the United States, English is the main language spoken, official or not. Because of this, immigrants are generally expected to embrace the language, along with customs and culture, while holding onto their own language and culture. This is what makes America work: multilingual citizens and a multicultural landscape. The requirement to learn English isn’t a requirement to shed one’s former identity, but to take on a new one along with it. This is a beautiful thing!
Of course, learning English isn’t just great for an ideal immigration experience. It should be a requirement. This is not to bar immigrants from coming to the United States if they haven’t had or can’t afford English lessons. Rather, it is to benefit the immigrants themselves. Learning English is the first step in basic survival in the United States, the ability to gain a driver’s license, eventual citizenship, and job security. It’s a way to begin to connect with other Americans, other than those in one’s immediate cultural group. America is a melting pot, and one of the largest binding elements of that melting pot is the English language. It unites us. It’s American. It’s part of our daily lives.
Beyond basic survival and one’s own benefit, the ability to speak English is going to benefit one’s future generations. If you learn English, you can massively empower yourself. But you can also empower your children.
Here are a few reasons why learning English is necessary for those immigrating to America.
It is difficult to get along in the world without the ability to speak or read the local language. Imagine the difficulty of garnering a job outside of landscaping or hard labor, acquiring a driver’s license or ID, or even ordering a coffee at Starbucks without the ability to speak and read English! For some, ordering a meal from McDonald’s is difficult, yet alone doing the difficult things like figuring out how to rent a place or get health insurance coverage.
Put simply, knowledge of the English language in the United States is necessary for basic survival. While a fair amount of people speak Spanish and other languages (with U.S. citizens becoming more and more bi- and multilingual), relying on translators just isn’t an option, especially when living in small towns or rural areas where the chances of finding a translator are a lot slimmer.
As immigrant Abraham Morales says:
Learning how to speak and write English helps us not only to survive, but to advance as well. I know of talented new citizens whose level of English limits their ability to pursue career opportunities, to be more engaged in their children’s education, or to better understand complex U.S. systems…
We are constantly using the English language in conversations with others, in reading road signs and menus and forms, and in handling basic tasks like grocery shopping and paying bus fare. English is required for basic survival, which eventually leads to flourishing and the ability to truly pursue one’s happiness.
Assimilation Becomes a Possibility.
Part of moving to the United States, usually, involves a dream of being truly American, of becoming an actual citizen of the promising, hope-inspiring country. Being able to talk to one’s neighbors. Interacting with others at various social occasions. Taking one’s children to school and helping them with their homework.
In Business Week, Havovi Cooper notes that learning English is absolutely necessary for full assimilation into American culture:
Learning English will lead to assimilation, and assimilation is not all bad. I would not readily trade my shalwar kameez (baggy trousers and knee-length tunic) for a miniskirt, but I would definitely want to add another language to my repertoire as it would increase my chances of applying for my dream job—on-air reporter—which will inevitably require fluent English.
Put simply, assimilation can be good and it does not require fully shedding one’s background and original culture.
Assimilation allows immigrants to feel like they are truly Americans, and to interact with others—and something we all need for a fulfilling life is companionship and friendship. Beyond that, assimilation allows for greater opportunities in the job sector. Often, fluency or near-fluency in English is a must for potential employees in the United States.
One of the nicest parts of assimilation is a decreased rate of discrimination. If immigrants show that they are embracing American culture, they are much more likely to get support from other Americans.
Immigrants Need to Know Their Rights.
We all feel somewhat unsafe when walking on dark streets in bad neighborhoods late at night, but imagine the uneasiness felt by an immigrant who can’t speak English and therefore can’t defend his or her basic, inalienable rights as an American. This is an all-too-common problem for new Americans who can’t speak English yet. The law is confusing enough for those of us who can speak English, but without some level of fluency, it is nearly impossible to understand one’s rights.
This becomes most important in dealings with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE is known for being tough in its dealings with illegal aliens as well as legal immigrants. They’ve been known to break their own laws in failing to respect the fourth and fifth amendments—protection from unreasonable searches and seizures and self-incrimination. They’ve entered homes without warrants, held children in custody, threatened or tricked immigrants into signing forms which give away their rights and allow them to be deported, and threatened or straight-out disrespected their basic rights as American citizens.
There are organizations like the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) to help out immigrants in these situations with various translations to be used in these situations (from Spanish to English, for instance) but the fact of the matter is that the ILRC is not available 24/7 with translators, especially in the midst of an ICE-controlled raid. The only sure-fire protection is the ability to speak English, be aware of one’s rights, and defend those rights.
America Has Voted.
The way a democracy tends to run is that majority rules, and the majority has voted loud and clear for immigrants to be required to learn English before immigration or shortly afterwards. Check out this Gallup poll for all of the information. Put simply, Americans really want foreigners coming to the United States to try to learn English. It’s part of respecting the country and of being able to flourish here. Most people think it’s more than required, actually: it’s essential.
Seventy-two percent of Americans believe that immigrants must learn English. The stats haven’t changed very much over time—just over a decade ago, in 2001, 77% called for immigrants to learn English. The people have spoken, and for good reason. One of the requirements for becoming a full-time US citizen is the ability to read, write, and speak in English. One way that lawmakers are planning to reshape immigration reform is for illegals to “earn” citizenship by studying American history and the English language. Even in racial and ethnic groups, over half of Americans agree that learning English is necessary. Even when comparing liberals to conservatives, both parties have over half of voters in favor of immigrants learning English.
Lucky for immigrants, there are numerous free and reduced-price language classes offered to new Americans who are looking to sharpen their language skills or start from the very beginning. It might be difficult to make time to learn the language, but it should be a real priority for those new to America.
To Gain American Support for Further Immigration Reform.
In some sense, learning English is a small worry compared to what many immigrants encounter in the process of attempting to immigrate and what comes after. There’s a lot of red tape. And although the United States is known as the Melting Pot, not all Americans are so keen on allowing immigrants in, especially when it comes to illegals and refugees from unstable countries. Immigrants need all the help they can get when it comes to gaining the support of American voters. Here’s how a writer at Prospect.org puts it:
What the “make them learn English” provision says to [an individual unsure of immigrants] 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.
There’s something to be said for learning at least a little of a language whether you’re visiting a country for a day or planning to live there for the rest of your life. It shows you really care about the place that you’re in, that you respect its residents. And in order for immigrants to gain support from ordinary Americans, it’s necessary that they show this level of respect: learn English. Try to learn English. And try to become American, whatever that may mean.
Speaking the Same Language Unites Us.
Us-english.org is a website with information on legislation and arguments in favor of making English the official American language. Their case is, to us, pretty rock-solid. Their first reason? Official English promotes unity. The same goes for immigrants entering the country: it allows them to become part of the country, part of the collective consciousness, part of the real United States. What’s beautiful about the melting pot metaphor is that numerous types of people and flavors melt into one unified thing. Our differences strengthen us, but having a little in common, like an official language, couldn’t hurt. Communication, after all, is the key to meaningful connection. And there’s nothing to get tensions boiling like divisions in racial and ethnic groups. Language is a common source of division, unfortunately, but it can be a means for unification as well.
Regardless of whether English is the official language, it is by far the most common language in the United States. We want to feel nationalistically bound and together, and speaking the same language is one of the most immediate ways of feeling truly connected.
One of the most immediate ways we like others is when we have something in common. Having a language in common, though, is necessary for real connection. You simply can’t make meaningful connections with hand motions and drawings. You need language. In the US, that’s English.
We Simply Can’t Translate Everything.
Everyone’s seen the Cuidado Caution signs for spills in restaurants. And we can all understand that red means stop, green means go, and yellow means slow down or speed up before running that approaching red. There are some symbols, thankfully, that are pretty easy to understand—like the pedestrian crossing signs and no U-turn signs. Unfortunately, though, most signs, manuals, forms, and media are not translated regularly. Although it would be nice and would encourage the growth of multilinguals, we simply cannot translate everything. We don’t have the time or the money. Translation services are expensive (single documents can go for $200, for instance), and if everyone were to simply speak the same language, we wouldn’t have to deal with them. Further, having to translate everything divides us, whereas speaking and writing and reading in the same language unites us. We have something in common, amongst all of our differences. This is yet another reason why learning English is so necessary for immigrants to not only survive but succeed.
Which is more worth it? Translating documents into numerous languages, or spending that same money on English classes? Considering how many translations would be required—for every other language—it seems language classes are clearly the best bet.
Noel Williams knows how it goes:
Let’s show… immigrants who are coming here for much more than a vacation a bit more respect. Let’s have more confidence in them. Don’t give them an interpreter, teach them to interpret. As a Chinese proverb says: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Engage me and I learn.”
Let’s engage new US immigrants and future citizens by teaching them about the language of the country they’ve joined.
For the US Naturalization Test and True Citizenship
Becoming a naturalized US citizen would be hard for plenty of people who were born American, so imagine doing it as an immigrant. The naturalization test includes two parts: civics and English. Both require a firm handle of the language.
Here’s how it goes: the civics test consists of ten questions, asked verbally, out of 100 potential questions the applicant has to study beforehand. You have to answer at least six of those ten correctly to pass. Oftentimes, these questions concern American history or current American politics, so study up!
Here are a few examples of questions on the civics test:
- How many amendments does the Constitution have? 27. (I didn’t know. Am I a horrible American? Do I deserve to be a citizen?!)
- When’s the last day you can send in federal income tax forms? April 15th. That’s an important one to know.
- What’s one war the US fought in the 1900s?
- Who did the US fight during WWII?
- What war was Eisenhower a general in?
- What’s one of the two longest rivers in the US?
The list goes on. Can you name one US territory? How about the name of the national anthem?
Needless to say, this test requires near-fluency or fluency in English. Rarely is the test administered in a language other than English.
Spell February. Make sure to capitalize American Indians. What’s Congress? Who’s the Father of Our Country? Some of these are easy for us, but they aren’t for someone who doesn’t speak English. It’s essentially impossible to become an official US citizen without a legitimate grasp of English.
To Empower the Next Generation.
Ask someone what they want in life and chances are “have kids” is on the to-do list. Next on that list would be “give my children a better life than I had.” We want our children to have opportunities we didn’t have. We want them to become wealthier than we were. We want them to straight-up outdo us, because that would show us that we raised them well. Oftentimes, first-generation Americans speak English very poorly, but their children rather easily become bilingual. Without a grasp of English, though, life in the US is a struggle, and garnering a job anywhere beyond the lower class is near-impossible, unless you happen to be a genius or working in a very niche field or Chinatown.
Immigrants know this, too. In a Pew study, 89% of Latinos acknowledged they needed to know English to succeed, and 46% said that language is a source of discrimination against them.
One of the greatest indicators of success for any child is parental support and guidance. Without a parent at home who can speak English and help one with homework, the chances of a child’s successful education are lowered by a lot. We live and work, ultimately, so the next generation may live and work in better conditions than what we had. For immigrants, this means passing down more than their culture and stories, but the acquisition of the English language.
It’s the Only Way to Succeed.
This is putting it simply, but it’s simply true: You need to know English to truly succeed while living in the United States. There are a few niches where you can get away with speaking little to no English, but rarely are they highly rewarding or lucrative. If you want to climb the ladder, you best take some English lessons as soon as you step off the plane or boat or across the border. Most people don’t come to the United States in the hopes of “surviving.” This is possible without English, but if you plan to stay in the United States or to get a job in the upper sector, you’ve got to learn the language.
Mariela Dabbah considers not knowing English one of the greatest limitations, especially among Latinos:
I see examples of this limitation around me on a daily basis – people who have left their family and their culture behind to come to the U.S. in search of a dream that for many, without language fluency, remains elusive. (It’s no secret that with few exceptions speaking English is the first step for immigrants to attain social mobility in this country.)
Most immigrants know this. According to a study done by the Migration Policy Institute, up to 85% of American immigrants interviewed said it’s hard to get a job or do well in the US without English. What’s more? Sixty-five percent of them think it’s an ethical obligation to learn the language. Ethical or not, it’s simply necessary for success.
There are few arguments in favor of not learning English in the United States that actually hold up. While America would be an ever greater, accessible nation if more of us spoke a second or third language, the fact stands that English is the most popular language, and it’s a necessity if you’re going to survive in day-to-day life here, especially in more rural areas where chances of finding a translator or bilingual person are slim to nil.
Although some immigrants can survive in specific sectors like the restaurant biz and manual labor with little to no English, this doesn’t fit most definitions of true success. People want to climb the ladder and they want their children to be able to seize opportunities they never had. In order to do this, they’ve got to learn English, and ASAP. Immigration is one way of garnering a better life. Ultimately, though, the key is immigrating and learning English as well.
The United States is an immigrant nation. We welcome immigrants with open arms, and we want to see them succeed. One of the easiest ways to succeed is to learn the English language, and luckily, there are many tools out there to do just that.