Should Immigrants be Required to Learn English?

Patience Griswold | July 17, 2018

Should Immigrants be Required to Learn English?

One of the most popularly cited silly laws in my home state is a prohibition on crossing state lines with a duck atop one’s head. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on whether you see it from the perspective of the duck or the individual wearing said duck, this so-called law is bogus. An urban legend. There are, however, several other ridiculous regulations throughout the country that are legitimate.

Most states view these laws as silly, innocuous, and too time-consuming to revoke. However, one Rhode Island lawmaker, Rep. John Edwards, has been pushing for the past several legislative sessions to roll back some of these frivolous regulations. 

One of Rep. Edwards’ targets is a forgotten “Americanization” law from 1919. It requires individuals between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one who have not attained English proficiency to take a class or pay a fine. Edwards argues that this particular regulation is especially harmful, flying in the face of the idea that Rhode Island is a haven for immigrants.

Although occasional efforts are made to give the United States an official language, we currently do not have one, and neither do most states, including Rhode Island. English is, however, the de facto language and the language of official documents.

It is unpopular to acknowledge the existence of something like a “national identity,” but a nation needs to be defined by something, or else it ceases to exist. It turns out that to most Americans, English as seen as a vital part of national identity, much more so than birthplace, ethnicity, or religion.

Currently, 8 percent of the U.S. population is classified as Limited English Proficiency, or LEP. This usually breaks down to around 40-50 percentof each state’s immigrant population. Lack of English proficiency does not benefit anyone, especially not the LEP individual. LEP adults generally earn 25-40 percent less than English-proficient adults, are more likely to live in poverty, and less likely to own a home. Despite this, it is increasingly considered offensive to suggest that learning English is a necessary part of integrating into American life. 

In the early 1900s, as Ellis Island saw an influx of roughly one million immigrants per year, many states began adopting Americanization laws, requiring young immigrants to study English and gain an understanding of American culture.These laws might offend modern sensibilities, but it is worth acknowledging that the alternative was a “sink-or-swim” approach in which a child was thrown into a classroom setting where they did not know the language being spoken, with the hope that they would both succeed academically and learn the language by the time they entered the workforce. 

Edwards is focused on repealing sections seven and nine of Rhode Island’s law, the sections that establish required English classes and impose a fine for failure to attend. But the rest of the statute is worth a moment’s attention. The law also established free evening schools to make English classes more accessible, and enabled factories and businesses to launch schools to help their employees gain English proficiency. The idea was that English proficiency was a skill needed to thrive in American society, and these laws were put in place in part to create greater economic opportunity for immigrants. 

Requiring some level of English is not unheard of in current U.S. immigration policy. Considering that over 90 percent of Americans currently speak English at a proficient level, English proficiency is still a necessary part of American life. Consistent with that idea, refugees in the United States are required to enroll in an ESL class in their first two weeks of arrival. If they do not, they are unable to receive government assistance. With very few exceptions, if a person wishes to become a U.S. citizen, they must pass the citizenship test in English. 

Furthermore, compulsory education is hardly a foreign idea in American society. All fifty states have some form of compulsory education and truancy laws, with the reasoning that a certain basic level of education is important to future success. If Rhode Island requires students between the ages of six and eighteen to receive some form of schooling in order to boost their chances of future economic success, why wouldn’t it be reasonable to also consider the potential economic consequences of not learning English?

As Rep. Edwards was on his crusade against archaic laws this past legislative session, he and his colleagues were surprised to discover that the state’s dueling law has recently been enforced, and that fisherman are still using the grading system from a pickled fish law he attempted to repeal. Sometimes strange, seemingly outdated laws serve a valuable function.

In like manner, while the Americanization laws of 1919 have not been enforced recently, and were designed to fit the education system of 100 years ago, that does not necessarily mean that learning English is no longer valuable. 

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[Image Credit: Pexels  | CC0 Public Domain]

 



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