Does Uncle Sam want immigrants to learn English?

Learning to read, write, and speak English remains a legal requirement for legal immigrants to become citizens in the United States. National polls also consistently show that over 80% of American voters favor making English the official national language. Immigrants to English speaking countries like the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and Australia also want to learn more English to gain better jobs, feel more comfortable, talk with doctors and teachers, and a thousand other reasons.

Yet funding for English language classes, especially for adults, remains quite limited. Government programs only help students learn rather basic English, often around 1200 essential words. Students can “pass” all their ESL classes and learn enough English to hold low-level jobs. The learn to listen more than speak, and read more than write. These low standards, by the way, also include a very, very low level definition of “can read, write, and speak” English for citizenship. (More on this subject in future posts.)

Many states, like California, are cutting back on all their education programs. English as a second language classes face even more dramatic cutbacks, partly because the students seldom vote. On one hand, this decision makes perfect sense during economically difficult times. Recessions and economic fears force citizens and governments to make tough choices, and cutting funds for English classes for immigrants – especially undocumented (illegal) immigrants is popular. It’s also very short-sighted and counter-productive. America is a stronger, better, and smarter country when we allow immigrants to use their intelligence and creativity, and we develop everyone’s skills.

” Uncle Sam wants you to speak English” reads a popular bumper-sticker. Uncle Sam, the traditional symbol for the United States government, probably does want everyone to speak English. The American people clearly want immigrants to know how to speak English too. A gap exists between vague desires and concrete actions. For instance, cutting English classes for immigrants seems unlikely to help them learn English.

I saw this “Uncle Same Wants You to Speak English” bumper-sticker on the way back from an English teacher’s conference again last week. I also wondered about the driver.

  • Does he support helping immigrants learn English?
  • Does he really think immigrants who don’t speak English will understand his message?
  • Would a Spanish speaking immigrant, for instance, know who Uncle Sam is?
  • Or is the driver simply stating that immigrants – who might speak two, three, four, or more languages – should only speak English in the United States?
  • Or would he prefer illegal immigrants just leave the country? Was he inviting everyone to share his language and country, urging linguistic unity, or expressing a distrust of people speaking other languages?
  • Would he expect French tourists, Japanese visitors, and international guests to only speak English too? Really?

Unfortunately, I never had a chance to talk with the gentleman who placed this provocative message on his car. I don’t really know what he meant by his “Uncle Sam wants you to speak English” bumper-sticker.

I hope, however, that he supports adding, not cutting, English language classes. We both would like more people to be able to speak to him and ask him questions in his best language (English) too.

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