Letter to the Editor: English as a second language

I was intrigued by Mintzhet Tan’s article in the March 16, 2017 issue of TSV entitled “Learn to embrace differences through language.” I think that Tan is fortunate to be able to use the experience of coming to the United States at a relatively young age and being immersed in school as a primary occupation which has resulted in excellent English fluency; I applaud this achievement. I stop short, however, of declaring that all who come to the U.S. are derelict in their citizenship if they do not learn the common language.

While I agree that language-learning is essential for citizenship (both legal and otherwise), as an ESL teacher, I see myriad barriers to learning English that can easily account for why many people do not achieve proficiency, even after living in the U.S. for several years. One glaring barrier is the defunding of the adult schools which used to provide double the hours they offer now of free English instruction. Recent legislation is attempting to right that terrible wrong, but it was American taxpayers and governments who chose not to support that vital service for years. Add to that a xenophobic streak in our society, a streak that I have spoken out about in this newspaper before: one that has no sympathy for the plight of an immigrant who must become proficient in the language of a host culture that frequently treats him/her as inferior, as a second-class citizen, or even as less than human. The recent travel ban instituted by the nation’s president, a man whose election has emboldened hate groups nationwide, illustrates this perfectly. Finally, there are the real life barriers to proficiency in language-learning such as being employed in the service industries where your only interaction in English is responding to orders or derision, and being forced to work multiple jobs in order to support oneself and family. And what about lack of regard for multiculturalism in this nation? Americans are famously monolingual, notoriously complaining overseas that no one speaks English; it is no wonder that they have no sympathy or patience for someone here learning the language.

Of course, there are also key factors in language-learning that will determine your success: are you an introvert, or an extrovert? What level of education do you have in your first language? Were your parents and family educated? What is your identity in English versus in your own language? What is your perspective of the host culture: do you embrace it, or do you fear it, perhaps for good reason? Did the host culture, perhaps, destroy your country before inviting you to immigrate to it as part of reparations? Agreed, language is the foundation of civilization, but not everyone feels equally invited to the table in this particular corner of civilization.

I am constantly humbled by the hard work that my students put in to my ESL classes and I am never prouder than I am at graduation when I see them walk across the stage to get their diplomas. I know they are sacrificing so much to become proficient in the language of a society that is not always so keen on letting them share a piece of the American dream. Maybe if our culture can learn to appreciate and welcome immigrants while supporting their language learning, more people will become proficient in it.

Leigh Anne Shaw
Professor/Faculty Coordinator for ELI Program