Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 | 2:02 a.m.
Why are we making such a big deal of the English language?
If the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country get offered a chance to become citizens, it must include a provision that they learn English, lawmakers from both parties pointed out last week.
But English is already a requirement.
Federal immigration law mandates “an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write and speak words in ordinary usage in the English language.”
The existing requirement says that immigrants seeking citizenship must be able to “read or write simple words and phrases.”
So aspiring Americans already know they have to surpass Honey Boo Boo’s family when it comes to language proficiency. So why stress an English-language requirement in this new pathway to citizenship as if it’s another get-tough measure?
“Because it’s the key that unlocks wide public support for immigration reform,” Paul Waldman wrote in the American Prospect.
And that says more about us than them.
Consider this. There were 21 German-language newspapers in America in 1811, according to the Library of Congress. As German immigration to America swelled all through that century, German-language newspapers grew to 565 publications in 1911. And now, a century later, German-language newspapers in America fell back to 42 publications.
What happened? A wave of German immigrants who didn’t speak English swelled into this country, and at first, they clung to their language. But over time, their children and grandchildren became English-speaking Americans.
Today, America is full of people with German ancestry who don’t speak a word of German.
It’s the story of America. And to imagine that the Spanish-speaking immigrants of today will not assimilate in a similar way demonstrates a xenophobia that is frequently mistaken for patriotic pride.
“Immigrants today are learning English faster than the large waves of immigrants who came to the United States during the turn of the last century,” a study done by the Migration Policy Institute said. “Fewer than half of all immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1900 and 1920 spoke English within their first five years after emigrating, while more than three-quarters who arrived between 1980 and 2000 spoke English within the first five years.”
The nonpartisan think tank found that the embrace of English over time is universal in America.
“By the third and higher generations, close to everyone, regardless of ethno-racial group, reports speaking only English or English very well,” the report said.
Living in America creates English speakers. If the intent is to accelerate that process by government decree, it’s going to take some doing.
Are we going to make these undocumented immigrants take a tougher English test than the one for those who came here legally? If so, we citizens will to have to pitch in and work the slaughterhouses, pick the vegetables and clean the toilets to give them some time off to conjugate their verbs.
And we’ll have to create a new government bureaucracy to handle the extra instruction and testing.
It’s a high price to pay.
Unless the mentioning of the English requirement is really just empty talk aimed at empty heads.
“As part of this step forward, I hope we don’t expect immigrants to avoid using their first languages,” the language blog for the Economist wrote. “The three-generation pattern has already stripped so many Americans of what would be a valuable skill; native fluency in a foreign language.
“There’s no reason to hurry the process by treating a naturalized immigrant as suspicious for keeping his first language alive in his family. The solution to this apparent conundrum is very simple: bilingualism. It’s a healthy thing that Americans have historically been too suspicious of.”
It’s way more politically viable to reform immigration while demonstrating an unreformed view of our own history.
Frank Cerabino writes for the Palm Beach Post in Florida.