By Joe Guzzardi
October 30, 2017
For 22 years, beginning in 1986 and ending in 2008, I taught in the California public school system. My subject was English as a second language, and my students were adults. The first class consisted of San Joaquin Valley migrant farm workers, mostly Mexican, who were attending to fulfill a provision in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. To qualify for permanent residency, the students, illegally in the United States, had to log 40 classroom hours in English language instruction. Shortly after offering the original class, the school district added another section designed for the Southeast Asian refugees who had relocated in California’s central valley. That class was also mandatory. To receive social services, the students had to attend regularly.
The memories of those many hours I spent teaching rushed back to me as I read the Census Bureau report that in 2016 a record 65.5 million people age five or older speak a language other than English at home, a total that has increased six million since 2010, and more than 34 million since 1990.
The largest increases from 2010 to 2016 were among Spanish speakers, up 3.5 million; Chinese, up 564,000; Arabic, up 366,000; Hindi, up 201,000; Telugu, up 143,000; Vietnamese, up 129,000; Tagalog, up 128,000; Haitian, up 109,000; Bengali, up 101,000; Tamil, up 89,000, and Urdu, up 86,000. Telugu and Tamil are spoken in India, and Tagalog is the national language of the Philippines; Bengali is spoken in India and is also the national language of Bangladesh.
Huge increases in the non-English speaking population – now more than one in every five households converses in a language other than English – don’t surprise me. As I entered the second half of my teaching career, the special green card and refugee programs ended, and the school district replaced them with open enrollment sessions. Enrollment became more diverse – more immigrant students from different corners of the world.
In the end and sadly, however, few students demonstrated a commitment to learning English. That is, when they left the classroom, they returned to their homes in ethnic enclaves, and resumed speaking their native language. In California, not speaking English was particularly easy since most every government and retail service is offered in multiple languages. Learning a new language is hard, and more challenging when there’s no pressing need to adapt linguistically.
But one statistic in the Census data jumped out at me. Many of those who speak a foreign language at home aren’t immigrants, but rather are born in the United States – 44 percent, or 29 million, of the 65.5 million. The U.S. born citizens, then, grow up in a household where the heads of family don’t speak English.
My final takeaway from two decades of English language instruction was that the experience was personally enriching, but with generous amounts of frustration included in the mix. I would tell my students that to fully take advantage of the American way, English is essential. Without English, newcomers are limited to an unsatisfying life of low-paying jobs or welfare dependency.
To Congress, pause in the unsustainable policy of admitting one million legal immigrants annually. Maintaining the current immigration pace guarantees an increasingly fractured America.