Immigrants Should Learn English
The U.S. should require people to learn and speak English before they can attain citizenship. Pro or con?
Pro: Language Skills Equal Success
Let me set the stage for this debate by revealing that I am not an American. I am a grad student, or oops, “legal alien,” from Pakistan, and I speak a medley of languages, often in the same sentence.
Like many immigrants to the U.S., I have a heightened sense of defensiveness when it comes to my identity. My cultural values are important enough for me not to change them as often as a chameleon changes color. When it comes to learning the language of the locals, however, I am all for it. One of the few immigration laws that makes any sense to me is the one requiring immigrants to learn and speak English before they can attain citizenship.
So why shouldn’t an immigrant continue to converse in Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, or Russian? 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.
Immigrants are also particularly vulnerable in a new environment, so it’s even more important for them to know English before choosing the U.S. as their homeland so they can be well-versed in their rights and the laws protecting them.
By obliging immigrants to learn English before naturalization, the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services will prevent the formation of a Tower of Babel. After all, according to the Census Bureau’s March 2007 report, there are 37.9 million immigrants in the U.S. speaking 311 languages. Standardization of a language is necessary at some level, so why not start at the elementary one by saying “Hi, my name is Carlos” in English?
Con: Why Make Unnecessary Demands?
Forcing all immigrants to learn English before they can become U.S. citizens is at worst xenophobic and at best unfair.
Most of those who support requiring new immigrants to know English worry that, if we don’t, newcomers will prefer to live in linguistic ghettos with others who speak their native tongue, refusing to participate in “mainstream” English-speaking society. Many also fear that immigrants will come to the U.S. and enjoy its benefits without learning English and becoming productive.
But the facts show a different story. According to the Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey, 61% of foreign-born naturalized citizens said they spoke English “very well” or they only spoke English. Only about 39% said they spoke English “less than very well.” As for becoming productive, besides the armies of hard-working immigrants doing the dirty jobs most Americans refuse to do, immigrants earn bachelor’s and professional degrees at higher rates than native-born citizens.
Also, many immigrants who desire to learn English are already struggling for a chance to do so. Cities across the country are experiencing severe shortages of English teachers, leaving lines of would-be English speakers waiting outside their doors. Add to that the fact that our earlier ancestors—most of whom were Northern Europeans or Africans—were not required to learn English. Why should the standard change? And if it should, shouldn’t we first make sure people who want to learn English have the opportunity to?
America was founded on the principle of fairness, of giving everyone a chance to make his or her own way in life—not on language skills. Immigrants who have fulfilled all the other requirements (good moral character, knowledge of U.S. civics and history, five years’ residency) should, like the ancestors of everyone in this country who is not a Native American, be allowed to become a U.S. citizen without fulfilling a stringent language requirement.