April 02, 2007

Immigrants: English Teachers Needed

At least that should be the conclusion upon learning that immigrants in search of English-language classes sometimes wait months or years for a spot in a class:
In Colorado and across the country, it could take months and sometimes years to get a seat in an English-language class.

Federal studies show that millions nationwide say they would like to study English if there were classes available, and local groups that run classes are managing waiting lists.

"It's necessary for everything you do," said Enereida Castaneda, who is taking a Mi Casa Resource Center for Women English class at Lake Middle School in Denver twice a week. She wants to advance further in her job at a chicken packing plant.

"The new job requires you to speak and write in English," she explained.

Since 1980, the number of adult English-language learners - people not proficient in English - has doub led from 6 percent of the population to 12 percent, according to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.

In Colorado, English-language learners who want to take a free class are waiting up to two months for a spot.
Oh, wait. They are waiting for free--taxpayer subsidized--English classes. If there was that much clamor for such classes, and with waitlists months long, then the natural progression in an economy such as ours would be the immediate sprouting of not a few, but many new English schools.

Are Colorado and other immigrant-heavy areas lacking the necessary language infrastructure to accomodate all these aspiring English speakers?:
Opponents of immigration question the reported lack of English classes, said Stan Weekes, director of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform, which supports tougher immigration enforcement and a moratorium on all immigration.

"There have been plenty of opportunities to take English classes - if they want to, they could learn," he said. "There is very little interest in using English other than when necessary."
. . .
In the 12 states surveyed by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials last year - a survey that included Colorado - 60 percent of the free English programs had waiting lists.
At least one thing is clear. Non-English speaking immigrants want English classes for free (federally subsidized by you the taxpayer).

What is not clear is why a dearth of available classes would not lead to the immediate introduction of English schools, of varying quality and outcome, all over the country. As one who spent time in China teaching English and American culture to eager students, students who readily acknowledged the value of the language and who paid quite well to enter a program staffed by native English speakers (not just Chinese teachers who had learnt the language), it is clear that there is some level of disconnect going on here. Either Americans have failed to meet a large latent demand for English classes because of ignorance to the need, or there is, in fact, no pent up demand for paid English courses. Even poor immigrants would likely recognize, as did my Chinese students, the value of learning the language in terms of employment and advancement and undertake relatively inexpensive lessons so as to improve their standing. A few dollars today would lead to a lifetime of English-language competence. No one would expect to charge Ivy League type tuition, or expect to receive it. But if it isn't free, they don't seem to want it.

Why? We make it easy to avoid having to learn. By having Spanish-language options on websites, over the phone, or in stores, we create the disincentive to learn. As a traveller, English signs in foreign countries make life easier, but also make it less likely that on a short trip you will acquire any foreign language skills. But that is the life of a tourist or business traveller. Your stay is not expected to be permanent.

Newt Gingrich recently referred to a lack of acquiring English-language skills as "the language of living in a ghetto". Smart job-seekers are always on the lookout for an edge, extra web skills, a foreign language, unique training, etc. So why don't more seek that extra edge--learning the common language of a country built on immigrants, but unified by English?

PS--How bad is it? When travelling in Europe, I have been asked whether or not bringing a whatever-Spanish phrasebook would also be smart. If Europeans can see the problem, and heck knows they know about language issues--then why can't we?