Many people get very upset when they hear of someone who has been in this country for years and does not speak any English; and the failure to learn English appears to be increasingly more prevalent among Hispanics. It seems to be an issue that strikes a chord with many Americans. “Why are they not making an effort to learn to speak English like all other immigrants did?” I venture to say that the main reason why many Latinos are not learning English as fast as others did before is because our society no longer requires it. That’s right; my contention is that, as a society, we give Latinos permission to keep their culture and language; and consequently, learning English becomes much more difficult than what other immigrants experienced years ago.
When other big immigration groups came into this country a few generations ago the situation was very different from what it is today. Many early immigrants made the hard decision to come to America with an understanding that they were breaking ties with their old country. Learning a new culture and a new language was not a choice. Our society was a true melting pot and immigrants were expected to fully assimilate into the American culture. They complied. Ever wonder why the children and grandchildren of the Italian immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island in the late 1800s never learned how to speak Italian? These early immigrants understood the importance of becoming American in every respect; and that included speaking only English. Speaking Italian was not important; in fact, it was detrimental in a society that expected assimilation- but things have changed; and assimilation is no longer expected. We are no longer melting into one pot because we no longer believe in that antiquated idea of the melting pot.
It amazes me how the same people who are troubled when everyone around them is speaking Spanish will turn to me and remark on how “important” it is that I teach my children Spanish. “You should speak Spanish to them at home,” they will say. While I wholeheartedly agree that it is important for Latinos to teach their children how to speak Spanish, I want to emphasize that this was never important before. The American society now understands that we live in a multicultural world and that knowing more than one language is beneficial. Our society now also supports (and even exalts) diversity. It is now considered appropriate to uphold and celebrate diversity, especially when it comes to culture and ethnicity. Forcing everyone to melt into one homogeneous pot is no longer considered appropriate.
While our country was founded on the idea of diversity, the practice of diversity was never as alive as it is today. With diversity comes not only permission to speak the language of our ancestors, but also the empowerment to maintain every aspect of our ethnicity. The American society promotes this understanding at many different levels. At a commercial level Latinos see most product labels and instructions written in English and Spanish; ATM machines ask us for our language of preference; and telephone companies insist that we keep in touch with our relatives in Latin America. From a government perspective most services are also offered and/or communicated in Spanish. At a community level there are hundreds of neighborhoods across the country were everyone speaks Spanish. Can someone in one of these neighborhoods get along perfectly well without ever having to learn English? Absolutely! Our society allows it.
We cannot as a society promote diversity and the use of the Spanish language and then wonder why some Latinos are having difficulty learning English. Everyone knows that it is much easier to learn a foreign language when you live in a foreign country and are immersed in a society that only speaks that language. In our society we speak English; but we also speak Spanish. For some Latinos learning English while living in a neighborhood where everyone speaks Spanish is akin to an American student taking a foreign language in school and not grasping it because nobody around them speaks that language. We need to stop pretending that our society expects Latinos to speak English when everything is laid out to make it easy for these new immigrants not to learn the language.
NOTE: Please do not take this opinion to mean that I do not feel that Hispanics should learn the English language. I believe that speaking English in our society is extremely important and encourage everyone in our Latino community to make every effort to learn the language. Being able to speak English opens the door to a myriad of new opportunities for success and paves the way to achieving the always cherished American dream.