Why Americans, New and Old, Need English

ONE has only to spend some time in Africa to understand how important it is for a nation to have a single language. In most countries on that continent an ``official'' language competes with the language of the dominant tribe, which competes with a number of other tribal languages. Not everyone has the opportunity to learn the ``official'' language or to be a member of the dominant tribe. The result: Language is a barrier to many people and a tool of discrimination for others.

The United States government has debated over the years whether or not the citizens of this country should have an ``official'' language. This question grows ever more pressing as refugee populations around the world begin to rise and the US considers taking in more.

With millions of illegal immigrants crossing its borders every year, the US can no longer push the question aside. The US needs to make a commitment to English as its national language and begin putting many more resources into public and private institutions specifically for English instruction.

Minority populations (that will one day no longer be in the minority) will decry such a move as prejudiced. They will say it is an attempt to handicap them, to make them adhere to white, middle-class standards, make it difficult for them to apply for welfare, and to strip them of their cultures and traditions. Spanish-speaking Americans, the second largest language group in the US, will be the most vocal. Many want Spanish to be in the running for ``official'' language, or at least be given equal status.

The issue, however, is not prejudice, nor the alienation of certain peoples, nor stripping them of their identity. It is whether the US will make a political and financial commitment to one language and thus ensure that all Americans, including those who count English as their mother tongue, communicate well. It is a question of having one common element, amid our rich diversity, that gives each of us an essential tool for working within our communities and economy.

A single ``official'' language would not, in fact, oppress certain groups, but give them far more opportunity and freedom.

The stories of two young Soviet friends, we'll call them Rudolf and Vladimir, illustrate this point.

Rudolf, when I met him, had been in the US about nine months. His English was still minimal. He was collecting welfare, having exhausted his refugee monies, and sort of looking for work and admittance to one of the local universities.

Vladimir spoke near-fluent English upon his arrival. In about four months he had his own apartment, he had been accepted to one of this nation's most prestigious universities, and he had a job teaching Russian to English speakers. Rudolf, even a year after Vladimir's arrival, was still on welfare, working ``cash-paying'' jobs on the side, and still hoping to enter a university. The key difference between the two: English skills.

I have observed, in my years of working with refugees, that those who commit themselves to learning English are far more able to take care of their own basic needs - employment, shelter, food - and the needs of their families. And when these needs are met, new Americans are able to give thought and time to protecting their culture and traditions from the onslaught of Western culture.

They have the time and energy to devote to this - through community ethnic groups, festivals for dancing and feasting, and, most important, through teaching their children to appreciate their heritage. They also have the time - and the skill - to share this heritage with Americans who might otherwise be ignorant of it and seek to oppress it.

Most immigrants who come slowly to English, or never learn the language, spend their days in a hand-to-mouth existence. They work two to three jobs and have little time for taking part in ethnic-oriented activities. And they have little time to spend in passing their native tongue and an understanding of their cultural heritage on to their children.

Indeed, in families that lack a commitment to have all members learn English, home relationships often break down. Parents find that their children, who more readily acquire the new language through school and friends, begin to drift away.

If the parents, because of inadequate language skills, are left to menial and poor-paying jobs that leave no time to nurture and maintain family ties, their language and traditions will never get to the children. In fact, many of these children begin to associate the native language and culture with the poverty of their parents and the lack in their own lives. The ``old ways'' become the focus of resentment.

Closed off from the world their children are experiencing, these parents are often unable to bridge this gap - an abyss far more complicated than the so-called ``generation gap.'' These are some of our nation's most ``dysfunctional families.''

In a very real way, the country's inability to commit itself, politically and financially, to the English language, is responsible for such family woes. By admitting tens of thousands of refugees every year without requiring that they acquire the most basic tool for survival, the US sets them up for failure. It also wastes the precious skills these immigrants and their children have to offer.

This nation can no longer afford its lack of commitment to English. It is paying too much in welfare, social services, and bilingual education programs that often drag on and on because the immigrants do not have the one thing they need to get a job. It is paying more dearly through the turmoil in the personal lives of immigrants and the loss of contributions these people could make to society.

The US immigration system should be reformed to include, as part of the refugee's initial financing, six months of intensive English instruction at a facility accredited to teach English as a Second Language (ESL). This is especially necessary for adults. This would mean establishing many more affordable ESL programs. Today, there are not enough spaces for the refugees who want to learn English.

All of this means putting a great deal more money into the refugee's first months here. But if the US would make this one commitment, it would find that most of these immigrants would be self-sufficient within a year instead of lingering, like Rudolf, for more than two years collecting welfare.

This step toward a one-language policy must be backed by a similar commitment to English and good communication skills in the public school system. It's not only the immigrants who have a hard time filling out job applications and writing a cohesive paragraph. We shouldn't demand that immigrants learn English while allowing many native-born American to escape a command and appreciation of the language.

Additionally, these steps must be followed by a system that requires every well-educated English speaker to have a working knowledge of a foreign language. Our national security and our ability to compete in foreign markets demand more bi- and multilingual Americans. This will keep a one ``official'' language policy from reinforcing a mentality is already pervasive in the US: that English is the only language anyone needs to know.

It's not. But it is the most essential tool for beginning life anew in the US. And it is a key element to keeping our families and our communities unfractured.

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