A favorite chant in the immigration debate goes something like this: “If you want to be an American, learn English! Our ancestors did.”
But it’s not all that simple.
Yes, learning English is a major advantage — even an imperative — in a country where English is the predominant language. Any immigrant would be wise to try.
No, the ancestors of the anti-immigration folks did not necessarily learn English. In earlier immigrant waves, just like today’s, many new arrivals struggled with it. Some learned a bit, but had strong accents. A lot fewer achieved mastery. Some never really learned it at all.
This is not stubbornness or laziness, then or now. Language acquisition is a lot easier for the very young than for the adult learner. And that skill is not necessarily a matter of intelligence. Some very smart people simply can’t do it.
A priest I admire greatly, for example, is as intelligent and dedicated as they come, but his attempt to master Spanish for his work has been a rocky road. He has the brains for it, but sadly, not the ear.
A prime exhibit of this brains-but-not-ear syndrome is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He’s extra smart, but his Spanish pronunciation is so painfully bad that it has spawned a new genre of jokes, and even a Twitter feed, El Bloombito.
For today’s immigrants, like those of decades past, learning English is a steep climb.
To begin with, it’s a tough language. It has a copious vocabulary, filled with words that it has enthusiastically pilfered from many other languages. It has a wide variety of vowel sounds that are difficult for people like Spanish-speakers, who are accustomed to a small, simple, consistent set of vowel sounds. It has combinations of spelling and pronunciation that defy easy-to-memorize categorization. It has multiple silent letters. It uses the apostrophe in ways that elude so many native English speakers that apostrophe abuse is now a poem, a website, a blog — but not yet a crime.
On top of the difficulty of learning English at all, there’s the matter of finding a place to learn it. The demand for ESL (English as a second language) classes far exceeds the supply. Organizations [including Make the Road New York] such as Literacy Volunteers of America train people both to lead ESL classes and to teach reading to adults who have never acquired that skill. I have done some volunteer ESL teaching, and believe me, teaching English can be as difficult as learning it. There are professional ESL teachers as well. But there just aren’t enough of either the volunteers or the professionals to provide classes for all who need them.
So, especially for immigrants who are working in grinding jobs with tough hours, it can be awfully difficult to find a class at all, let alone one that fits their work schedule.
For all those reasons, an executive order issued by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Nov. 9 makes so much sense. It recognizes the county’s linguistic diversity — 20 percent older than age 5 speak another language at home. And it sensibly adapts to that reality: It orders county agencies that provide direct public services to translate important documents into the six most predominant non-English languages here. Right now, those are Spanish, French Creole, Mandarin, Italian, Polish and Portuguese. It also orders the agencies to provide translation services.
Some — like online commenters — will wrongly see this as evidence that we’re losing our country to jabbering hordes. But it’s really a simple, commonsense, compassionate recognition of reality: A lot of us these days don’t speak English and are having a hard time learning how. Our ancestors who had the same struggle would understand that — even if they didn’t speak English.
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