July 24, 2007

Sí se puede

I don't often listen closely to Marketplace, but this story in yesterday's edition caught my ear:

Huddled masses yearning to learn free

With English proficiency becoming an increasingly crucial skill for U.S. immigrants, classes to learn the language for free fill up fast. Jessie Graham reports on the demands facing English-language programs in New York.

It's a very short story, but it highlights the difficulties that immigrants face when they really want and need to learn English. Even when cost is not a factor (the classes discussed in the story are free), there's a massive scheduling problem in both directions: finding a class that's not full, and finding a class that fits into your work schedule (particularly hard if you're working long hours or more than one job). This is the kind of thing that rarely gets this kind of undivided attention in debates about the enforcement of English as the official (or "national", or whatever) language of the United States, so I'm particularly glad to see it get this kind of attention on Marketplace.

I'd certainly like to see a sharp increase in the number/convenience/availability of (free/subsidized) English language classes in a successful immigration reform bill, regardless of the official language question. Some of our elected public officials have other ideas about how to learn English, though.

Last month, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger further endeared himself to admirers of his "straightforward" approach when it comes to politically sensitive matters at the annual convention of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

[R]esponding to a question about how to help struggling students, [the Governor] said they should "turn off the Spanish television set. It's that simple. You've got to learn English." That remark set off a debate with NAHJ taking the position that the governor made a good point -- poorly. (link; see the full NAHJ response here)

Needless to say, these remarks sparked a flood of responses -- positive, negative, and somewhere in between -- in the opinion sections of newspapers in California (and no doubt elsewhere). The San Diego Union-Tribune had its share, which I'd like to share here with you.

In particular, I'd like to draw your attention to this June 28 letter from my UCSD colleagues John Moore (Linguistics) and Ana Celia Zentella (Ethnic Studies): "Learning a second language: When simple solutions and anecdotes collide with the facts". Moore and Zentella begin with this observation:

Invoking simple solutions to complex problems is an easy and effective rhetorical device. No need to do research, check facts, consider complexities -- just assert the solution and, as long as it is close enough to what people already believe, the argument is won.

The letter ends with the following food for thought.

Rarely do politicians think to consult language researchers when dealing with linguistic problems. The governor seems to think that his recollection of his own experience with learning English is enough evidence to know how to deal with complex issues of second-language acquisition and literacy among poor immigrants under very different circumstances. However, we still harbor hope that research and facts might occasionally trump a facile appeal to personal anecdotes, so often invoked in political discourse.


[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at July 24, 2007 01:42 PM