Budget cuts to English classes for immigrants have recently earned widespread media coverage across the country. As an immigrant myself, I know that one of the worst things the government can do to immigrants is hinder their access to English language learning programs.
In the United States, a life without English proficiency is a life of low-skill, low-paying jobs. By learning just a little bit of English, an immigrant’s income can rise by as much as 35 percent.
That is why, beginning in 1811 and as recently as 2010, 31 states have passed legislation or amended state constitutions to declare English the official language. In California, for example, home to one of every four non-English speaking United States residents, the State Constitution was amended in 1986 to declare English the official language of the state. Article 3 Section 6 reads, “This section is intended to preserve, protect and strengthen the English language.” It goes on to say that the state legislature, “shall take all steps necessary to insure that the role of English as the common language of the state of California is preserved and enhanced.”
At the time of the 1980 Census, prior to this declaration, 11.35 percent of California residents were considered limited English proficient, meaning they could only speak English less than "very well." By 2011, the number of limited English-proficient residents had jumped to 19.4 percent. This means that more than 6.8 million Golden State residents struggle to carry on more than a basic conversation in English. This also means that there are 6.8 million Californians who may be in search of the English classes that are currently being slashed across the state.
Unfortunately, this dilemma indicates that lawmakers have not upheld the blueprints set out for them in state constitutions, passed by state legislatures and enacted through voter ballots. Despite the instruction in 31 states that the government preserve the role of English as a common language, many of these states still offer driver’s license tests in multiple languages. In 2002, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget found that the total annual cost for just the California Department of Motor Vehicles to provide language services was $2.2 million.
Imagine what an impact $2.2 million a year would have if it was instead invested in creating English language learning classes for state residents. Add the cost of multilingualism in other state agencies and across all 50 states, and this sum would help a significant number of non-English speakers see the opportunity to learn English.
Herein lies the problem with government multilingualism: by spending money to provide foreign language translations and documents, the government is sending a message that English is optional. It sends the message that even if a newcomer does not learn the common language of the nation, they are still able to receive certain services and benefits. This acts as a "free pass," allowing an immigrant to sidestep learning English and leaving them to face daily language barriers. Furthermore, providing foreign language translations uses money that could be spent on assisting newcomers in learning English.
Lawmakers need to walk the fine line that runs between sending the message that English is optional and that English only should be spoken. Neither message is advantageous to immigrants. Rather, the government should encourage diversity and accept that individuals are free to speak whatever language they choose in their daily lives. At the same time, lawmakers should stress the importance of learning English and provide ample opportunities for residents to do so.
No reasonable person can argue that speaking more than one language is a disadvantage. I myself am fluent in four! Bilingualism can boost salary, open up job opportunities and has even been shown to improve brain function. Similarly, no reasonable person can disagree that being proficient in English is the key to opportunity and success in the United States.
Studies show that being immersed in a language allows for quicker proficiency. Rather than providing native language translations, all state governments would be better off providing services and documents to newcomers in one language, the common language of the United States and most of the world: English. Doing so will add an incentive for immigrants to learn English, allowing them to fully participate in life in the United States.
Mujica immigrated to the United States from Chile in the 1960s. He currently serves as the chairman of the Board of U.S. English, Inc., the nation's oldest and largest nonpartisan citizens' action group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States.