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Why so many immigrants don’t speak English?

Immigration is a hot button issue in America today. There is a lot of misinformation going around that causes people to make statements such as “When my family came to America they learned English right away. Those who come here today just don’t want to bother to learn.” Or, “The immigrants in America just want us to accommodate them instead of learning our language.” People get angry when they have to “press one for English” or see signs and reading material in other languages. This is because they simply assume that these “invaders” do not want to learn the dominant language of the United States. To those who think along these lines, let’s address some of the very common misconceptions.

For more myths and  misconceptions about immigrants, check out immigration myths.

Many people will tell you that their ancestors (who came from Italy, Poland, Russia, etc.) arrived in America and immediately began learning the language. They will say that their ancestors did not want others to have to accommodate them so they spoke the dominant language. This may be true, but if they asked their ancestors how long it took them to stop speaking their language (except at home), they would most likely be surprised. Most of the early immigrants held fast to their culture and language. This did make it harder for their American born children to speak good English and many immigrant parents learned the English they did know from their children. There was no requirement for language during America’s first 100 years and during World War I, there were close to 1 million German newspapers being published in America. So no, your ancestors probably did not learn English right away, and for those who did, it was a hard row to hoe. Learning a new language is time-consuming and can be difficult depending on a person’s learning style. When people come to America today, learning a new language may not be top priority. Take the Hispanic immigrants for example. Many come to the United States quickly. Yes, many enter illegally but they do so out of fear and out of love for their families. When they arrive they must find shelter, a job and other of lives basic necessities. Many will work long and hard hours in laborious jobs to make a living, which leaves very little room for study. So, most immigrants do not wish to avoid learning English. The majority know how much easier their lives would be if they did know it. The problems lie in the time it takes to learn and the personal ability each person has for learning a new language.

The lesson here is not to make snap judgments or assumptions about immigrants in America. You do not know their story and have no idea what type of effort they have put into learning English and assimilating into the dominant culture.


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