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Assimilation and English

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Achieving and living the American Dream requires knowing the language we use here. Immigrants who don't learn English, and even our own citizens who don't have a good grasp of the language, never reach their full potential. People who know our language are more successful, earn more income, move into better neighborhoods with better schools and make better lives for their families. Their children, in turn, are more successful and the whole country benefits.

In years past, immigrants had to learn English quickly to live and work here. There was almost nothing available to them in their own languages and certainly nothing provided by the government or most businesses. Because of the distance and cost involved in visiting their homeland, most never went "home" again. They were forced to cut all ties with their past and quickly became Americans.

It is very easy for immigrants now to keep ties with their homelands. Telephones, email and airplanes all make it easy to visit often. The Spanish speaking immigrants, especially, have little need to learn English. Businesses have made the decision to serve them in their own language because of their buying power and their sheer numbers.

Chinese is probably the only other language which has enough people here to make it fairly easy for some people to live here and not learn English. People speaking other languages have a harder time and have to learn English quicker, more like immigrants a hundred years ago had to do.

Even with the ease for many immigrants to keep their own languages, the Pew Hispanic Center says that Latino immigrants recognize the importance of learning English. 92% of Latinos believe it is "very important" to teach English to the children of immigrant families. Only 2% believe it is not, compared to 27% of non-Latinos who feel that way. I wonder who the 27% is that thinks it is notimportant to teach English to immigrant children. Many people are very upset to hear Spanish spoken in so many places, how could they not want them to be taught English?

Regardless of what language immigrants speak, as always, immigrant families know their children will lose their native language soon. Many families are working hard to keep their language alive in their homes. Children who grow up knowing more than one language usually do better in school and have better chances for employment too.

We should be proud and happy that more of our people know more than one language. A majority of Europeans know two or more languages, only about 10% of Americans do. This puts us at a distinct disadvantage in the global marketplace. Just because people know another language along with English does not mean they are less American or haven't assimilated. Retaining one's native language and being bilingual does not mean they can't also be good Americans.

English is what unites us in this country. Diverse people and cultures with one language made this nation. Assimilation into our society and culture happens much faster when there is a common language. We need more classes to teach English as a second language to immigrants. There are some available, but not always at convenient times or places, with childcare to allow mothers to take the class. If the businesses that serve the immigrants in their own languages would sponsor English classes instead, many problems would be solved at once.

Assimilation also happens much faster when the people are here legally. If the people here illegally are put on a path to citizenship, they will assimilate much faster. If you knew you were in a community or school or job temporarily, would you put much effort into getting to know all the rules and all the other members or try to become a leader? Probably not if you knew you were leaving, even if you didn't know exactly when.

If you were in a permanent job, community or school, you would try to fit in and get to know everyone and be a full member. It is the same thing for the immigrants here now. We can't expect them to try to learn English, learn all the laws and culture if they are leaving at any moment. Especially if they are scared they will be arrested and deported.

Thankfully, a large majority of Americans believe that the immigrants here illegally should be put on a "tough but fair path to citizenship". They approve of the requirement of stringent background checks, fines, back taxes paid, along with fluency in English, obeying all the laws, staying employed and keeping their children in school. This large majority restores my faith in the humanity and compassion of Americans.The very vocal minority sometimes make me forget that.

Congress keeps ignoring this problem, while more and more of these immigrants are crossing our border, replacing the ones who are deported. Immigration reform and a humane, compassionate, responsible way to allow these people to stay legally are long overdue.

Hopefully, the large majority of Americans who believe this will become a very vocal majority and talk louder than the vocal minority. And it is time Congress listens to the majority.
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Donna Poisl is the author of "How to Live & Thrive in the U.S. / Como Vivir y Prosperar en Estados Unidos" and president of Live & Thrive Press. She wrote this reference guide to help immigrants learn our system and succeed in this (more...)
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