Friday, May 19, 2006

The US may be Joining the French

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.
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."
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.

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.

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Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

LG you said, "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."

I do not understand why you are saying this, because it is already the case that in order to become a U.S. citizen you have to know simple English. Certain circumstances may exempt you from that requirement though. The following is taken from a list of eligibility requirements in order to become a U.S citizen:

"Being able to speak, understand, read, and write simple English during the citizenship interview, unless you have a physical or mental impairment that prevents you from learning English. You may be exempt from this requirement if you are over the age of 50 and have been a permanent resident for over 20 years."

Here is the link which you can copy and paste in order to verify this. http://www.legalzoom.com/law_library/immigration/immigration_01.html
Be sure to go beyond the right margin of the comments section when you copy it so that you can capture the entire link.

I just think it is much better for immigrants, for their sake, to learn the dominant language of the country they have immigrated to so that they are better equipped to protect themselves from harm and to reap the benefits which that country and the local community have to offer.

11:52 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My former Tae Kwon Do instructor told me how, when he first came from Korea, he knew almost zero English. He wasn't the least bit concerned, he said, because he knew how to say "yes" and "no". He had seen a demonstration in school of how it is possible to communicate virtually anything following a twenty-questions kind of dialogue.

Anyway, he told me he was very confident for the whole length of his journey. But when he got here and actually had to talk to somebody, he had a shocking realization...

It suddently dawned on him that he didn't know when to say "yes" and when to say "no".

1:30 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

susie q, here is the passage you mention: "Being able to speak, understand, read, and write simple English during the citizenship interview, unless you have a physical or mental impairment that prevents you from learning English."

I think there must be less to the requirement than meets the eye, the key being the interpretation of "simple English." The reason I say this is that there would not be so much debate over whether or not and if so how to implement an English language requirement if the requirement for citizenship quoted above had any teeth. I am thinking it comes down to a pidgin English level of competence. Simple sentences would be "The cat chased the dog." Certainly Bush's use of "command of English" is a vastly stronger criterion that the one quoted as would be a "fluency" requirement. Of course, the same situation could obtain in France where the requirement might end up being "simple French sentences."

In short there is much fuzziness in what Congress and Bush are saying.

I fully understand why people want English to be spoken by everyone but there are factors that make this into a dicer proposition than most people realize, ranging from the well-known problems older immigrants will have learning English to the implicit insult this entails to the Spanish culture that immigrants bring with them.

Years ago, I had a student at the U. of Illinois who have a very odd, highly Germanic influenced English. It was so off the wall different from ordinary English that I had to ask why. It seems that where he lived some Germans settled who became rich and influential before they mastered English and once they became the dominant social group, their hybrid English became the local standard. When my student went to school he was told that how he talked was "bad" and that he must learn to speak, read, and write a different form of English. He rebelled and refused to adapt. While in grad school, his wife, also from the area, who was more compliant had to proof read his papers to rid them of things like "If John going to school is, then I will too." I asked hem to werite a paper on the dialect in the dialect and I struggled to read it. The last I heard, after getting his Ph. D. he ended up at the U. of Cincinatti.

This "official English" proposal whatever it amounts to must be advanced with some delicacy so as not to be read as a put down of the Hispanic cultures immigrants come from. My "everyone learns both English and Spanish" proposal solves the problem

8:30 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

My older sister(51) immigrated to the Netherlands where you must learn the language.
The government pays for the immigrants language education. Consideration is given to levels of learning skill.
According to her they will sponser up to 2 years of language courses.
I believe she told me passing the language course is a requirment to getting a job.

That's good incentive.

On the other hand my sisters Dutch husband said children in the Netherlands are taught english in grade school.

I think spanish should be taught to all u.S. children in grade school & i think immigrants should be given more incentive to learn english.

10:24 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

what is the language ogf guys?

4:09 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

probably the language of good f___ing guys.

8:30 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


Once again you are singling out "the French" yet as is indicated above the Netherlands too has a similar requirement. Surely your stance is against countries that force immigrants to learn another language, not simply the French?

If you do not require a person to do something then they will if they can, avoid doing it. In my view refusing to learn the langauge of ones new host country is to show utter contempt for the people who already live there; you are in effect saying "Listen I dont want to learn English, if you want to communicate with me you'd better learn Spanish else move over I have other customers to serve" (Spanish used arbitrarily as an example).

Now if you want to prevent people from refusing to learn the new langauge then you have to pass laws.

Does this foster good will or ill will?

I used to live in London and often visited areas (for the superb food) that had very dense Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani populations. By refusing to learn English one gets a growth in enclaves that not only do not speak English, but thereby actually make it easier for new immigrants to not speak English.

This can lead to situations in which only those who can speak that foreign language are able to work in these areas, and this leads to further growth of such areas.

This is where the feeling that "foreigners are taking over the area" stems from.

I am very in favor of funding language eductaion for immigrants and would support this wholeheartedly if I were asked to.


11:47 AM

Blogger Sean said...

Just to throw in some information about the Netherlands. As l>t said, the kids there learn English in grade school, but they also continue learning their native Dutch, and French and German. In later grades they choose one more language, say Spanish, Norwegian, or perhaps Japanese. So today nearly every one under the age of 50 in that country speaks at least 3 different languages, many of them 5 or more. Pretty impressive I think.

To compare the Netherlands to France in their language policies is a bit misguided and naive. The former has a long history of including all major regional languages in their culture, and they seem to desire those living there also be inclusive in nearly the same way. France, and it looks like the Bush Whitehouse as well, are looking for exclusion. "Speak this language, the one we speak, or leave." I find the Netherlands approach to be more "We've learned your language, the least you can do is learn ours." The difference may be a bit subtle, but it makes all the difference.

9:58 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:26 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Sean is right. My brother-in-law knows French, German, English, & of course Dutch.

The Dutch are talking about tougher immigration laws, tho. In light of trouble by Islamic Extremists. One proposal is that people from certain countries be required to know Dutch before they immigrate. Like people from Iran, Irag, etc....

11:33 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Hugh, I don't think we disagree at all on the virtues of everyone in a given country, assuming that the country has political integrity (and not something the Brits cobbled together for political reasons, such as Pakistan vs India where there was an East and West Pakistan, or Nigeria where they cobbled together a poor Muslim north with a much more wealthy non-Muslim south with predictable results in both cases), speak an official language. Nor are we disagreed on getting proper funding for English training for immigrants. Unfortunately, as usual, the Republicans will not pony up the money. What I oppose are the brute force methods of France to cause immigrants to bel like the rest of the French (not ethnically or religiously or racially likely). And as we saw, the US may not be above such measures. Incentives need to be used to achieve this goal. Even so, I think a USA that has a small percentage of people who live and work in small enclaves in which English is not spoken will be quite okay. The kids will normally learn English if they want to succeed in the broader community.

4:25 PM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

I live in the Chicago suburbs. Our local junior college (College of DuPage) offers close to 200 tuition-free English as a Second Language courses on campus and off campus in our county.

The courses, which are designed for non-English-speaking adults, run for 16 weeks and are broken down into beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels. The population of our county is close to one million which includes a substantial number of Hispanics. COD is not the only source for ESL classes either.

According to the college catalogue, the classes help non-English speaking adults learn English for employment, education, and civic involvement.

I did notice in the catalogue that the adults have to be eligible to take any of these classes. This probably means for one thing that they must have legal status in this country.

My guess is that COD receives funding for these tuition free classes from the Federal government.

According to a recent Chicago Tribune editorial, "A Pew Hispanic Center survey found that 90% of Latinos in the U.S. believed they needed to learn English to succeed here." So, it appears the desire to learn English exists among Hispanics.

5:34 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

My english is not very good but i can read it. I just have a simple question : have you checked that in France you have to speak french?
I have never heard about this. Perhaps it would be wise to check this assertion before.
A french guy.

3:41 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Olivier, I have no idea what you are trying to say.

8:17 AM

Blogger The boy with the green tambourine said...

There has been no mention yet of the US's second native language: ASL.

5:18 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Sadly, it is easy to forget ASL, even for a linguist such as I who have spent some time learning about ASL while my wife did research in the area of "deaf language." The reason we forget it is that we linguists are focused almost entirely on spoken language since that is the way it is found au naturel with, perhaps a few exceptions. I did hear once of a tribe of people, south of the US border I think, in which deafness was very common and an indigenous sign language emerged that everyone knew. I have tried many times to recover that information.

But, your point is well taken. Sign language can be learned in the same manner as spoken language and speaking children who have deaf friends who communicate in ASL will learn it so they can communicate with them. In short, as with spoken language, ASL can be learned without being taught.

10:21 AM


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