By Domenico Maseri

New America Media

Jun 19, 2007

“You’ve got to turn off the Spanish television set,” Arnold Schwarzenegger stated recently at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention, many of whose attendees write for Spanish-language media. According to California’s governor, that’s the key to learning English.

Schwarzenegger’s advice suggests that Spanish-speaking immigrants are not learning English, or at least not fast enough. The reality is quite different. Research has shown that Hispanic immigrants learn English as fast as immigrants from other countries, and in a generation or two the mother language is nothing but a faint memory.

Learning English is not easy and inevitably some people learn fast while others face many obstacles. While immigrant kids learn English like natives, those who come as adults will learn enough to get by. Some may never learn English because of low educational background in their own language. It is very difficult to learn a new language if you do not know your native language very well.

My mother was an Italian immigrant with a second grade education. She spent much of her time taking care of her family. Barely literate in her native Italian, she found learning English very difficult.

Speakers of European languages who have a high degree of education usually learn English well, although they will always retain a foreign accent if they came to the United States as adults. Arianna Huffington and Henry Kissinger will bring their accent to their grave. Schwarzenegger still can’t pronounce California very well in spite of being the governor.

Educated immigrants speaking a non-European language will also learn English, but will have a harder time. It might take twice as long for an immigrant from Japan to learn English as compared to one from France. English and Japanese, for example, have different alphabets and very little in common. French and English, on the other hand, share a number of linguistic and cultural features. These similarities simplify the process of learning English for French speakers.

Gender also affects one’s learning ability. Immigrant women, who have a tendency to stay home and care for kids, are less likely to learn than men who go to work and are forced to have some interaction with Americans.

The intricacies of English add to the challenges. English pronunciation and spelling are particularly difficult. It is no wonder that spelling is a basic school subject in English-speaking countries while it does not exist in Italian, Spanish, and other relatively phonetic languages.

Although all immigrants need to learn English, Spanish-speakers have in some ways less of a need than those from other countries because Spanish is widely used in the United States. Radio, television, and newspapers are not easily available in Bulgarian as opposed to Spanish. It is possible to live in the United States as a Spanish-only speaker. However, it is impossible to be very successful in the United States without knowing English.

English is the key to advancement and complete integration. You cannot become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer without mastering the English language in the United States.

Spanish-speaking immigrants want to learn English and get an education because they understand that they will be condemned to a life of menial work if they do not comply. It is difficult to attend night classes after having toiled the entire day, but many do. For proof of this all one has to do is look at the large number of people attending night classes to learn English and consider the high number of commercials on Spanish TV peddling tapes and videos promising to teach English the easy way.

But there is no easy way to learn a language. It takes time, education, and a great deal of effort and resources. There is no doubt that immigrants are doing their best to learn English because they see value in the language.

But what about the native-borns? Do they see value in learning other languages?

Related Stories:

To Get Ahead in America, Aprenda Español

Spanish-language Media Blast Governor for His Comments

Editorial: Schwarzenegger On Course with Latinos

California Governor in Trouble With Latinos

Domenico Maceri teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif.


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