In Tennessee, Demand for English Classes Barely Keeps Pace with New Immigrant Population

Published on April 8th, 2014

Since 1990, Tennessee’s immigrant population has increased about 400 percent. Many immigrants have arrived from not only Mexico but also Kurdistan and Somalia. Pre-1990, Tennessee had 64,000 immigrants; as of the 2010 Census, the total was 289,000.

Understandably, most of the new immigrants don’t speak English. To its credit, the Nashville Human Relations Commission designed an online map that identifies 50 venues that offer English as a Second Language to adults.

Again, this is all well and good. But as the Tennessean noted, “Nashville continues to grow at a faster rate than most U.S. cities and becomes increasingly diverse.” Assuming growth continues over the next two decades at roughly the 400 percent level established between 1990 and 2010, the city would eventually run short of spaces to offer ESL, have fewer qualified teachers to conduct the classes and therefore would have much less chance of success in teaching their pupils how to speak English.

The number of immigrants is already overwhelming Nashville. Because a quarter of new immigrants come from homes where English is not spoken, Nashville’s schools chief Jesse Register is urging free, universal preschool English immersion classes for all the city’s 4-year-olds.

Drawing from my 25-year career teaching ESL in the San Joaquin Valley, here are three serious pitfalls that may not have occurred to the optimistic city planners.

First, when a teacher faces a classroom of mixed ethnicities and varied native languages, instruction is difficult and learning often elusive. Many students may never have been in a formal classroom before. Some males won’t sit next to females even if they are their spouses.

Second, students must arrive punctually and attend regularly if they hope to learn. This is a big problem. Transportation, child care issues and job conflicts often interfere.

Third, students must be motivated, a quality that I saw little of. Since most will live the rest of their lives in the U.S., basic English-speaking skills will be required if students expect to get a good job and to fully enjoy the rich American experience.

A sensible federal immigration policy that would allow immigrants time to assimilate and for communities to absorb them is undeniably better than scurrying to find additional ESL centers and creating English language immersion classes for toddlers. Undeniable that is to all but the White House and Congress who disregard the consequences of over-immigration and the over-population it creates.

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