As S. Tsui notes in a comment on my last blog, "Uh Oh," for the US seems to want to join the French in requiring immigrants to learn the predominant language of the respective countries. To anyone who has spoken English since childhood, this is likely to seem like an innocent enough requirement, but it flies in the face of a fact we linguists have known for as long as I have been in the field, namely that adults have a very difficult time learning a second (or third, etc.) language.
Before getting into that, let's look at the President's and Congress's proposals. In the Yahoo news story s tsui cites, it is said by Tony Snow, the President's mouthpiece, that
"What the president has said all along is that he wants to make sure that people who become American citizens have a command of the English language," Snow said. "It's as simple as that."The problem is what does "a command of the English language" entail? Is it equivalent to fluency or is it equivalent to a functional knowledge (the person knows enough English to do his job) or something in between?
Bush is currently supporting, lukewarmly I believe, two conflicting positions, one is that English becomes the national language of the country and the other is that English becomes the "common unifying language." The latter has not teeth and the former, at best, has baby teeth. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, says that
"We are trying to make an assimilation statement."Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., lies when he says that the national language was not aimed at Spanish speakers. One would have to be a total idiot to believe that since the issue arises only in connection with a concern, a legitimate concern, with the integrity of our border with Mexico. If we were worried about people coming in on the giant container ships that come, say, to the port of San Francisco, then maybe Inhofe would be right since the odds are that those people would be Asian. Inhofe seems to be of the position that if you take an anti-Latino stance, but say you are not doing so, then you are not doing so. It is sort of like sentences like, "I don't mean to interrupt, but..." which involve interrupting while saying you don't mean to.
The impulse to force a national language on everyone derives from the belief that if immigrants just learn English/French they will assimilate and become American/French. That, of course, is nonsense. The identity of immigrants are is bound up in their original cultures, as is still true of many Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and others and before they give that up they will have to be absolutely sure that they will be replacing their acceptance within the American communities that share their original culture with acceptance into the American or French majority cultures. That is anything but guaranteed unless you can make enough money to live in the burbs, as do many Indian immigrants, for instance, who are engineers or doctors.
It is, I think, against the nature of America to force immigrants to do anything. Our policy towards those who come here with papers has been that of benign neglect. Those who form communities and help each other, as Korean-Americans have done, tend to do well. Indians typically come here already knowing English and often come with some serious education. Some of the Vietnamese that came here were fishermen and succeeded at that. And, we have lots of nice foreign restaurants here thanks to all these immigrants knowing that if they have a restaurant or small foreign foods market their families will be able to eat even if they don't make a lot of money.
Some Democrats are in favor of requiring "sufficient understanding of the English language for usage in everyday life." I'm sure they don't mean this but what this ignores is the issue of speaking English, which is a great deal harder than simply understanding it. The latter is required for taking orders from bosses; the former is required to be a boss (in some business that is part of the majority culture, as opposed to the large Chinese sections of our largest cities).
So, for the US we have five proposals.
1. A command of English.Bush, to his credit, seems never to have actively supported making English the national language, perhaps because he has developed some sensitivity to the Latino situation through knowing his brother Jeb's wife. But now he is entertaining that, partly, I suspect, so as to get some immigration bill out. As in all times the President and Congress pass laws hoping that the people will see this as solving the problem and get off their backs.
2. English language fluency.
3. An ability to use the language in everyday life.
4. An ability to understand the language in everyday life.
5. A sufficient knowledge of how to speak and understand English to assimilate (i. e., English is to be a "common unifying language."
Proposals 1 and 2 fly in the face of one fact: adult immigrants normally are unable to acquire a command of or fluency in English. While I was in grad school in 1964 Eric Lenneberg proposed the thesis that there is a critical period of language learning that lasts until one is around 12 years old. Those who begin acquiring a second language before this time tend to develop fluency while those who begin acquiring it later will have an accent (if still fairly young) or genuinely struggle with learning the language if one is an adult. We run into the nature/nurture issue here and it is relevant to the issue. If it is nature, then adult immigrants cannot fairly be expected to master the language (proposals 1 and 2) and if it is nurture we could expect that they could master the language even though, for the most part, they don't. Children of immigrants exposed to English language children will want to fit in and will learn it. Adults don't expect to fit in and their primary motivation can be expected to be to learn enough English to get by.
We have some Latino grocery stores not far from where I live (they are scattered around Columbus) and most of the people working in them know no English at all. Fortunately, I know enough Spanish to shop in them. At a Mexican restaurant I used to know the owners of, they and the waiters were fluent but their cooks were often not. Some years ago, when the Bilingual Education Act was being debated, a group of OSU linguists, while developing a PBS TV series, learned that leaders in the NYC Chinese community were were strongly opposed to bilingual education acts. The reason seems to be that as long as recent immigrants know no English, they are easily exploited and the businessmen can get by with paying them below the minimum wage. I created the series but we lost in round three of the competition for funding. My original title was "The Verbal Ape." It was opposed by the others who joined me.
What disturbs me is the use of force by the French government to ensure that people learn French -- no French, no citizenship. It would disturb me if we were to adopt the same position for it does not take into consideration the difficulty adults have learning English. A recent immigrant's primary focus is to survive and that will often require working long hours. There would normally be little time for evening language classes. So far, it is unclear what the US government will do. It might be time to write your representatives in the House and Senate and express your views on the subject.