A lesson on learning English as America debates new laws

Immigrants who learn only a little English are unable to function effectively here.

For a while, my wife and I and our teenage son did some volunteer work teaching English to non-English speakers in an evening class.

It wasn't a highly sophisticated process. We didn't speak more than a few words of Spanish, the lingua franca of most of the class. Most of the class didn't speak more than a few words of English. The textbook was rudimentary, with a lot of pictures. We all did a lot of pointing at the pictures, and the students learned new vocabulary under the pictures, amid a lot of smiling and giggling.

It was, however, immensely satisfying and moving for us. Our students, mostly Hispanic, were then limping along in low-paid jobs from which they probably would never rise unless they could learn English, the language of their new country. We don't know what ultimately became of them but felt that in a small way we were helping them move along so they might meaningfully integrate and prosper in America, the land of opportunity.

Now, Americans are engaged in vigorous debate about Spanish-speaking immigrants, many of whom have crossed the southern border of the US illegally in the hopes of finding a better life here.

It is a complex problem with various facets. There is consensus among Americans that the border should be made less porous and the illegal flow stemmed. There is no consensus about what to do with the 12 million or so Hispanic illegals already in the country. Proposals range. Some argue for arresting them and sending them back to their homelands, primarily Mexico. Others argue that their labor is crucial for industries such as agriculture and housing construction and they should be permitted to stay with temporary work permits, perhaps ultimately earning citizenship.

However this turns out, one thing should be requisite: Immigrants from any country who become citizens should be, or should become, reasonably proficient in the English language. Twenty-seven states have already made English their official language and nine more have English-only bills pending.

Discussion of a federal law making English the official language is under way. The US Senate has been wrestling with English-only legislation. Last week the House tackled the issue of bilingual balloting. Florida Republican Cliff Stearns argued against it, declaring: "If you have the good fortune to be able to vote in the United States, then it is not too much to ask that this be accomplished in English." But Rep. Stearns's argument was overruled by a majority of representatives who affirmed the right of voters in areas with large populations of non-English-speaking citizens to cast ballots in their native language.

Some critics charge that the English-only moves are inspired by unworthy, racist considerations. The National Education Association once declared that legislative initiatives calling for English-only instruction in schools are "government-sanctioned bigotry." They are a "form of thought control, another inappropriate burden placed on teachers."

The NEA said such laws are intrusive to the "sanctity and privacy of the home, where prayer, dreams, and family love are expressed in one's native language."

But such laws in no way require new citizens to forsake the use of their respective native languages at home. Such native language use helps preserve the rich culture from which they may have come and which they may choose to preserve. But the laws pending do require them to learn and use English in their dealings with officialdom and government.

Immigrants who turn inward, confining themselves to geographic areas of cities populated by other natives of the country from which they have come and learning but a word or two of English, are trapped in linguistic ghettos, unable to function effectively in the new land to which they have immigrated. They are disadvantaged and left behind, unable to further their careers and economic progress. They have also set themselves apart from the bonding, unifying effect of a single language on an immensely diverse nation like the US.

A country such as Canada struggles to overcome linguistic tensions between French and English-speaking Canadians. So does Belgium with its Flemish and French-speaking factions. US English, a lobbying group promoting English-only, says the Canadian government spends more than $260 million a year to do government business in both of the nation's official languages.

The ability to speak and understand English as a primary language should be essential for all American citizens. It in no way hampers their use of other, native languages in the home.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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