06 Apr 2008
Perhaps you read this fun headline from MSNBC from a couple weeks ago: A judge known for creative sentencing has ordered three Spanish-speaking men to learn English or go to jail. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23831149/from/ET/
I think it's time for a heart to heart on the "They should learn English" debate.
We haven't spoken at all about immigration policy here at Dime Brothers...and we're not gonna here, either. But that doesn't mean we duck all the issues! The "They should learn English," or "English should be our national language," argument does deserve to be addressed.
If you've read the article above, you should find that it's not really that controversial. Some guys got caught doing a crime and were sentenced to take English classes. I like the creativity.
Unfortunately, many people are probably blogging on this article with comments like, "They should learn English," where the "they" is every single immigrant in the country, and the assumed timeframe for the learning is "now," and the presumed punishment for not meeting the timeframe is "leaving the country."
The whole "if they wanna live here they should learn English" comment is unfortunately something I've heard more than I've cared to. I don't mind the argument on its face. English, although not officially, is the language of our country. It will never have to be declared the national language because it just is, plain and simple. (Even if it weren't, why not let the free market decide.) What I dislike is that people usually deliver the comment with a boatload of negativity and assumptions. Here are some of my comments on this issue:
1) Just because the people are not speaking English in front of you doesn't mean they don't speak it;
2) Just because one person you saw in your bank had trouble speaking English (a specific situation), doesn't mean all people of that nationality don't speak English (a general situation);
3) Just because they don't speak English right now doesn't mean they aren't trying to learn it (one of the most popular commercials on Telemundo sells English-learning courses; why is it always being advertised? - because people must be buying);
4) Perhaps there's a good reason they don't speak it, like a) they just got here; b) they're too busy working two jobs to study it; or c) they're mute;
5) Do the people who say this know anyone who speaks Spanish/Mandarin/Etc.? (putting a face on the problem usually lessens the severity of the message);
6) Have the people who say this made a friend to try and teach them English? (I can only assume that they'd want to because they, ahem, "speak" so passionately about the issue); and, finally,
7) Just because when your ancestors came to this country they learned English, doesn't mean they learned it in one day. They formed enclaves of their countrymen to provide a social network that made the transition easier. They did not forget their heritage or their language right away, or ever. (Nor should they: see, for example, Irish, Italian, and Greek immigrants. Recent German immigrants forgot, but they had good reason to).
So there you have it. There are so many assumptions to think about that it makes it impossible to actually address someone in return when they say, "They should learn English or go home." At least you'll be prepared when they are willing to have a chat about this.