I wish the people who grumble that immigrants should be “required” to learn English could sit in on one of my ESL classes at Cabrini Immigrant Services in Manhattan. It’s a daytime class, so the students are mostly senior citizens and mothers of schoolchildren. This year, they’re all Chinese, but at various times in the past we have welcomed students from Ukraine, Poland, Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Myanmar. They don’t fit any of the common stereotypes about English language learners.
Except for the recent arrivals, almost all my students are U.S. citizens–which means they can read English at a sixth-grade level and have basic conversational skills. They aren’t satisfied with that; they want to understand the news on television, use the Internet and e-mail, and engage with their neighbors.
Several are older than I am; at least one is in his mid-80’s. (This gentleman proudly announced that he is “a life-long learner.”) The older we get, the more the ability to learn a second language decreases; some experts think the ability peaks in the early teens, and it’s all downhill from there. And most of us don’t need an expert to tell us how short-term memory starts to fade after 50. Yet they are eager to expand their vocabulary, use idioms, and pick up on the cultural clues embedded in everyday language.
When asked why they came to the United States, they most commonly answer that they came for freedom. “Economic opportunity” is a distant second. They vote in every election, and in diverse, polyglot New York, a lot of election information is printed in five languages, but they want to be better informed and more active.
The stereotype of the immigrant who comes to make money, enters illegally, and “refuses” to learn English is distorted and cruel. We are an immigrant nation. My students are constant reminders of why that has always been our strength.
(Barbara has been an Ignatian Volunteer in New York since 2000. In 2011 the New York region honored her with the Madonna Della Strada award which honors “lives that reflect the Ignatian values of direct service to the poor, and working and educating for a more just society.”)