Multilingualism in America

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As a teen-aged Chinese immigrant to the United States, I had a head start on learning English. I spent hours watching American television shows, sometimes repeats of entire seasons of a single show, to pick up American grammar, word choice and colloquialisms. Interestingly, I discovered that some of my friends who are non-native English speakers learned the same way. I have several friends originally from Montreal, who spoke French growing up, but learned English via television and movies. This unconventional manner of linguistic education, while effective, leaves its mark. Once I arrived here, I realized that I had some difficulty at first with spelling, since English contains numerous exceptions to spelling rules. Likewise, some of my pronunciations and phrasings were not common among most Americans. Nevertheless, I had the good fortune to attend an American high school, and quickly filled in the gaps that my television training had left. I also have benefited from participating in school extracurricular activities, sports, even social media interactions in English. Now I believe that I am fluent in speaking, reading and writing English, and that this has made my transition into U. S. culture fairly smooth.

For my parents, however, such has not been the case. For example, my father has been in the United States nearly fourteen years, but still struggles with English. When he speaks, his sentences are choppy and word use unsure. His reading and writing skills are marginal. Unlike me, my father did not have the luxury to spend time prior to coming to America watching television daily, thus his pre-immigration exposure to English was limited. Once here, he did not have the chance to attend school to learn English, although opportunities do exist at community colleges and other scheduled classes. My father had to support a family, hence his first concern was finding a job that he could successfully hold down. This had the negative effect of pushing him immediately into a job that required menial or manual, not communicative, skills, further impeding his progress at learning English. I believe that this situation exists for many members of my father’s immigrant generation: they miss out on the benefits of learning English at school, and are of necessity forced into jobs that do nothing to enhance their language skills. Consequently, socialization may be difficult, and English-limited immigrants often stick together with those from their own backgrounds and culture. In addition, many of these people, including my parents and those of some of my friends, rely heavily on their English-capable children for translations of important documents such as lease agreements or purchase forms.

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Based on my own experiences, plus those of my friends and relatives, I believe that knowledge of English is essential if one is to truly experience and benefit from relocation to the United States. In order to partake in events outside one’s culture of origin, a lingua franca is a necessity, and English seems to be the logical choice. Without knowledge of English, every day experiences can be frightening. Although many states administer driver’s license tests in a choice of languages, signage in the United States is almost exclusively in English (or sometimes Spanish). A trip across town can be a challenge if one is unable to decipher directional or hazard signs. My father had a harrowing experience once on a short flight, because he was unable to read a no smoking sign in the airport lavatory (and apparently did not see the universal “no smoking” cigarette logo with a red diagonal stripe through it). He had difficulty communicating with the airport security personnel; although things were finally resolved, it was an unpleasant experience that could have been avoided had he been able to read simple English phrases. Likewise, medical care is often provided by English speakers, which can cause misunderstandings, although I have seen signs in some public clinics offering translation services.

The goal of eliminating these uncomfortable or even hazardous situations through universal knowledge of English in America seems efficacious and possible. Some way to provide English instruction to all immigrants, including those who work long hours or are beyond public school age, would be beneficial to help people adjust to and explore the experience of living in America, without insulating themselves within their own communities, limiting themselves to menial or manual jobs, or relying on their English-literate children for translation of important documents or conversations. Perhaps the Public Broadcast System or other community programming stations could offer English classes that could be viewed during non-work hours by those too busy to enroll in scheduled classes. Simple English instruction manuals and workbooks could be made available through public libraries. Colleges with education classes could offer credit to prospective teachers who tutor immigrants in English. There are a plethora of possible options for English instruction to those with limited time or access to traditional methods.

Acceptance of an English-only policy could result in some loss of cultural identity, particularly for younger generations; I am not advocating abandoning multilingualism, especially the use of other languages at home or at certain community functions. The choice seems clear, however; to live in America and participate fully in the many opportunities it offers, more than a rudimentary knowledge of English is essential. I believe that it is incumbent upon government, industry, and individuals to come up with methods of assuring that all residents of the United States are able to learn enough English to function well in society, without giving up their earning power or cultural identity.

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