Monday, May 22, 2006

Be Careful Out There Among The English

As part of his immigration platform, President Bush is saying he believes newcomers should learn English on their path to US citizenship. Interestingly, he makes no mention of his own ongoing failure to grasp the language. But I digress.

I've never been the "learn the language or leave the country" type. That, to me, is an extreme viewpoint. It's like those rude French people who think you should study their language for years before vacationing over there for a week. Too much work for a holiday, that. Get real.

I don't know if I think learning English should be a prerequisite for US citizenship. However, it's probably a good idea to learn the primary language of any country in which you're going to spend an extended amount of time. Is that an unreasonable expectation?

People who live in the US for years – who aren’t verifiably learning disabled – and still don't know English are lazy, plain and simple. There are no excuses for not at least picking it up (if not having formal training) in all that time.

The problem for some is that they move into barrios (neighborhoods) where everyone from their neighbors to local business owners speak the same "foreign" language.

If you live in Miami, for example, and everyone you know and all your newspapers and TV and radio stations are Spanish language, you might not be motivated to learn English.

But you should.

Not only is it important to be able to speak English in your new country, by not taking the time to learn it you may actually be perpetuating unfortunate stereotypes about your own people.

Let's keep this language debate civil, and not resort to provincial platitudes. But both sides of this debate should acknowledge that they could stand to "give" a little.

10 comments:

Bird said...

i have to jump in here.

having read a bit about english as a second language (L2) and native languages (L1 or home language) through my masters program, and being a position in which i teach many children of immigrants, i have a few things to say.

1. A common misperception is that use of the L1 threatens English. But the truth is, that although sometimes the parents and grandparents struggle with mastering English, children of immigrants (whether they are born here or not) generally LOSE their L1 - their home langauge and adapt to english (this of course, causes a problem later on down the line, as research shows that literacy in your first language helps you attain literacy in a second). case in point about how the immigrant family loses the L1 - my own daughter, who is second-generation American on her father's side, cannot converse with her grandparents in their first langauge. additionally, although chinese was indeed her father's first language, he lost it quite long ago.he can understand what his parents and elders say to him, but he is not literate in mandarin nor in the dialect his parents speak. although his mother is fluent in english, she prefers to read her voting ballot in chinese.

i will have to add here, these folks are US citizens, pay their taxes, contribute to the overall good of the society. they are wealthy and well-educated. and i think perhaps their ability to "master" english has something to do with their class and economic status.

2. the inability to master English on the part of some immigrants doesn't necessarily constitute laziness bogs. English is a most difficult language to learn. and the older you get,the harder it is to master a new language. and it takes years and years to attain proficiency. i would venture to say that my former mother-in-law,who is US-educated (college) and has been in this country since the40s, is not completely proficient in english - hence her desire to have a voting ballot in chinese. she is not lazy in the least.

Pete Bogs said...

I too have heard that it's easier for younger people to learn foreign languages... it's better for natives here to start foreign language classes in grammar school...

I made allowances for time and for learning disabilities in my post... after a few years, I don't know how to explain anyone's failure to learn a native language, English or otherwise...

I am totally against making English our one national language... I find that provincial and below us... I'm not for laws, I'm for individual initiative...

I watch Spanish TV several times a week... I know enough to understand what's going on... (there is no Spanish in my heritage...) I do not feel threatened by any foreign language; I believe the people who want to make laws against them are...

The Flabbergasted Heathen said...

See, I learned Finnish as my first language, and lost damn near all of it when I started school. Do I wish that I had kept it up? Oh hell yes, in fact I'm trying to re-learn it now and it's a bitch!

But my country offers TWO official languages. If you immigrate to this country, you should have to speak passable English or French before being granted citizenship.

I say, passable, not fluent. I don't expect you to be able to deliver a dissertation, but you should be able to carry a conversation and understand what the government/authorities are trying to tell you.

My family immigrated here two generations. They all learned English. Hell, my grandfather was fluent both English and French (in addition to four others). If they can do it back then, without the resources available to newcomers today, I'm sure that our newest citizens can too.

Jack K. said...

Perhaps a tack to take would be to appeal to immigrants to broaden their horizons by learning a different language.

I prefer a positive approach to changing just about anything.

Pete Bogs said...

absolutely, jack... they'll be better off for having done so... they'll have more opportunities here, for starters...

Blue said...

A massive problem with the 'learn our language' fails with the lack of recognition of existing native language skills (of which I am demonstrating little)

My mum deals with a lot of refugees who are illiterate in their native language. If you are illiterate in one - it is virtually impossible to become literate in another. Speaking a new language will always be more difficult when you have no written reference.

It would be good if recognition was made of this problem - and some sensible educators had the facilities to teach these people concurrently in their own language and english (although what you americans use doesn't come close sometimes).

Apologies for segue - in this manner they could learn like kids who learn 2 languages - concurrently.

Sorry for incoherence - like Bird I'm at the end of semester and massively overtired.

Pete Bogs said...

concurrent learning may be a way to go with kids... some adult immigrants aren't learning any language once they get to a new country... I don't think this should be forced, but I think it's a good idea (with strong emphasis on good) to learn the language of the country you're in if you're going to stay for a while... it's nice to pick up some phrases before you go on a holiday somewhere, but if you're going to live there you need to pick it up somehow...

liberalbanana said...

I'm with you on this for sure. When I found out that people could take the citizenship test in their own language, I was a bit shocked. Okay, maybe I'M a bit extreme, but how about this one. Why should I have to press 1 if I want to hear a recording in English. How about the people that DON'T speak English have to press a number? Seriously.

talkytalk said...

I think Americans should learn English before they insist that anyone else does.

Pete Bogs said...

TT - I concur... see my line about Bush in the post...