We need a common language in America | TheUnion.com

We need a common language in America

I’m pretty liberal on most issues. I’m a staunch Democrat, pro-choice, pro-diversity, and antidiscrimination. On one issue, however, I part company with my progressive colleagues: I believe that making English the only official language in the United States would be good for all citizens.

I hear the most liberal among my friends gnashing their teeth in frustration: “It’s racist,” says one. “It’s just plain unfair,” says another. And the most common argument of all seems to be “depriving a people of their language is depriving them of their cultural heritage.”

Yes, I reply, exactly.

Before I lose you, I want to make it clear I have no intention of depriving anyone of speaking whatever language they wish with friends and family and in private social settings.

However, as an English teacher I have tried in vain to help perhaps a couple of hundred second-language learners at the community college level to write correct, grammatical English. It’s extremely frustrating. Many have been here since they were 10 or 12 years old. They have attended middle school and/or high school in the United States. Yet, they arrive as college freshmen ill-prepared for the level of both reading and writing required of college students.

Do we ask less of them? In many cases, yes. Is that fair? In all cases, no. By allowing non-native speakers of English to get by without learning the same language spoken by most of our society, we marginalize them.

Most Vietnamese will never get to know the richness of Mexican culture; the young French-speaking African woman will never get to know the Chinese student next to her in class. A common language is a great unifier; it not only enables us to better understand each other’s ideas and values, but also brings us closer together socially. It helps people from all over the world begin to share some commonality of culture.

What about those California High School students who have been unable to pass the new exit exam? Should we “dumb it down” so that they can pass? I think not.

Statistics show that a huge majority of those students are second-language learners, many of whom have had a great disservice done to them. We have led them to believe it’s OK not to be fully literate in English. They speak their native tongue almost exclusively when not in the classroom, especially at home with their non-English speaking parents. But when they graduate from high school and go out into the world, reality hits them hard. We have doomed them to failure-to a lower-quality education, a lower-paying job, a less-rich life.

You may have heard that the Dutch now require all immigrants to pass a Dutch language proficiency test before immigrating to the Netherlands. Interesting idea. It wouldn’t work here for a variety of reasons, but how about requiring all immigrants to pass an English proficiency test within two years after arriving in the U.S.?

I know, I know: Who’s going to pay for the classes? But guess what? We already do! They are in place in virtually every city here on the West Coast. Basic English can be learned at adult school in almost every school district, and it’s free. Then, community colleges – whose programs are also subsidized by taxpayers – offer very low-cost English as a Second Language classes. Many students qualify for financial aid and have to pay nothing.

All that’s missing then is the exam. How could we enforce this? That’s trickier, but certainly doable. Withholding social services of some kinds (not medical care!), taking away “green” cards or driver’s licenses, even the threat of possible deportation are all possible. If parents are required to begin learning English upon arrival, it stands to reason they will be better able to communicate not only at work or at the doctor’s office, but with their own children, as well.

The Dutch have added another twist to this idea, though. Before immigrating, potential Netherlanders must watch a video that introduces them to Dutch culture and values. They must understand the openness of the culture-tolerance of drugs, prostitution, nudity-before entering the country. Should we do that, too? Nah! Hollywood has done that job for us.


Debbie Russell lives in Grass Valley.

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