Immigrants Shouldn’t Be Required to Learn English

Here’s the president again:

Those who are here illegally, they have a responsibility as well.  So they broke the law, and that means they’ve got to pay their taxes, they’ve got to pay a fine, they’ve got to learn English.

And here’s The National Journal:

For years, in good economic times and bad, polls have consistently found that most Americans believe immigrants who are in the United States illegally should be provided a pathway to legal status if they take steps such as paying a fine or learning English.

Is this really necessary? If someone is able to get a job, make friends and generally build a life for themselves, what’s the point in legally requiring them to pass an English test? There are a million small and huge incentives to learn the language of the country where you live, all of which are significantly stronger than laws regulating this.

I’m currently an immigrant living in a country where I don’t speak the language.* I was hired for my communications skills in English, and I can basically get by without German — as long as I never try to explain anything out of the ordinary or interact with anyone over 45. I know people at work who have gone like this for years. If you work at an English-speaking organization and are married to another non-German speaker, where exactly are you supposed to find 10 hours a week for two years for language lessons and practice? For people with families, it’s basically impossible.

If immigrants in the States are able to get by without English, who are they harming? Despite the rhetoric of Sun Belt bigots, you’re not going to walk into the bank tomorrow and find that the person behind the counter can’t communicate in English.

Children raised and schooled in America failing to learn English is not now a problem, nor was it 100 years ago when basic education was far less accessible. Adults who don’t find the time to learn a difficult foreign language between working full-time and raising a family aren’t harming anyone. The US has better things to spend its money on than harassing and deporting middle-aged, undereducated manual labourers on the basis of their extracurricular educational attainment.

*I’m learning it as fast as I can, but dude, German grammar. This could be awhile.


Filed under America, Berlin

8 responses to “Immigrants Shouldn’t Be Required to Learn English

  1. I’m one of those assholes who wants to learn German because I’m sick and tired of understanding four words in every Rammstein song – what is it about the grammar that’s so difficult?

    • Ben

      Basically there are three different genders for adjectives and nouns and four different grammatical cases, and the ending of adjectives changes with the gender and case of the noun.

      For example:

      Das ist ein hübscher Mann. (<- That is a pretty man.)
      Das ist eine hübsche Frau. (<- That is a pretty woman.)
      Das ist ein hübsches Kind. (<- That is a pretty child.)

      This tends to confuse foreigners, mostly because it is not always apparent what gender a word has, for example: Die Frau (the woman) is feminine, but das Fräulein (the young woman) is an 'it', neutral.
      Also: compound words. We like them.

      • Well, I’m a native Russian speaker – sort of, learned English at 10 and haven’t spoken much since – so I don’t think it’ll be quite as huge of a hurdle for me.

        In the Frau and Fräulein example, are the two genders simply something you know, or can you figure out the gender by applying some grammatical rules?

  2. Dude, read Mark Twain’s essay on “The Awful German Language” and get a good laugh out of it. I have friends who are German so I thought I’d take some classes and learn a little…and I was whimpering into my textbook by the third. You know the one word I know how to use without question?


  3. Ben

    “In the Frau and Fräulein example, are the two genders simply something you know, or can you figure out the gender by applying some grammatical rules?”

    There are some rough rules, but it is by and large very arbitrary. A minimisation is always neutrum, for example: Der Mann (The man, masculine) -> Das Männchen (the little man, neuter). Then again, a girl is always neuter (das), and while a dog is der Hund (masculine) or a cat feminine (die Katze), a horse is das Pferd (neuter). Same goes for the pig (das Schwein), a calf (das Rind), etc. It’s pretty much guessing if you didn’t grow up with this, I’m afraid.

  4. My late grandmother arrived in the USA as a young adult in 1910, from what is now the far eastern part of Slovakia, on the border with the Ukraine. She raised seven children, and was bubba to 14 grandchildren. Those 14 grandchildren are doctors,lawyers, health professionals, patent holders, academics, media professionals, gifted mechanics, dancers and just plain good people. She spoke almost no English. She signed our birthday cards “hepi bordej”. Would she have been hassled to learn English under these new rules? Or worse, would she have been refused entry or residence?

    • Ben

      With respect to the experience of your grandmother, I think that people then did not view immigrants with the same amount of dread than they do today. The USA – I say this with the view and possible ignorance of a foreigner – from the beginning of the 20th century to the seventies were a country with much more opportunity and a higher amount of social mobility. One could conceivably be born into a underclass-family and work your way up to the upper middle class in one generation. Nowadays there is much less growth and the people seem to feel that the economic space is running out. Thus they start to resent the competition that immigrants represent.

      • Didn’t people hate the Irish, the Jews, the Eastern-Europeans, etc, from basically the start of the nation?

        The USA does have a lot of social mobility, but it was paid for by our various ancestors.