Like shooting feet in a barrel

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So Roy Ortega thinks that the Spanish-language media in the U.S. have an obligation to become "more proactive in encouraging [their] audience to seek full fluency in the English language". (Immediate side note: why do people seem to tend to write "the English language" instead of just "English" when making pronouncements like this?)

But let's not get Ortega wrong here. "By no means [is he] a rabid advocate of the English Only or English First movements. [He] certainly [doesn't] support declaring English as the country's official language and [he is] not calling on anyone to forsake their fist [sic] language." He's simply observing that "English is the dominant language of the U.S. and should be spoken by all of its citizens", that "[w]ithout adequate English-speaking skills, few can expect to achieve the highest levels of success in U.S. society", that "far too many adult immigrants and legal foreign residents living in the U.S. have failed to master the English language despite some having lived in this country for decades", and that "[m]any simply don't recognize fluency in English as an important part of their personal development".

The contradiction is outstanding — unless you take Ortega to mean that he is, in fact, an advocate of the English Only and English First movements (just not a "rabid" one) and that he supports English as the official language of the U.S. (he just doesn't support "declaring" this).

And please don't buy the I'm-only-saying-this-for-their-own-good platitude that Ortega is selling here. Actual research on the topic of English language adoption among immigrant populations in the U.S. has repeatedly found what Calvin Veltman is often credited with finding in an article entitled "Modelling the Language Shift Process of Hispanic Immigrants" (International Migration Review, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 545-562; published by The Center for Migration Studies of New York, Inc., 1988). Here's the article's abstract; you can read a more detailed abstract via PubMed here.

This article provides a longitudinal interpretation of the 1976 Survey of Income and Education data on the linguistic integration of Hispanic immigrants to the United States. The assumptions required to sustain such an analysis are examined, followed by the presentation of data suggesting that age at time of arrival and length of residence in the U.S. largely explain observed patterns of language shift. The analysis shows that movement to English is extremely rapid, occurring within fifteen years of arrival in the U.S. Further, most of the younger immigrants make English their preferred personal language.

The body of research that has been produced on this topic consistently finds rapid language shift across generations, from monolingual Spanish (or whatever the non-English immigrant language may be) in the first generation, to some level of bilingualism in the second generation, to monolingual English in the third generation — a remarkably stable observation generally referred to as the "three-generation rule", and if anything, the trend has been for this shift to speed up towards becoming a "two-generation rule". Ortega is thus not completely off-base in saying (in more provocative words) that many adult immigrants do not learn English, either because they don't feel the need to or for some other reason; these are just overwhelmingly likely to be first-generation immigrants whose children and grandchildren are speaking more and more English, at the expense of Spanish — an unfortunate breakdown in intergenerational communication that the Spanish-language media could arguably be helping with by encouraging bilingualism rather than language shift, as Ortega would have it.

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49 Comments »

  1. john riemann soong said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    Are these people too dense to grasp the concept of "poverty of the stimulus"? Children are well-equipped to deal with such poverty via immersion, but adult learners are not.

    I mean obviously, when parents of a deaf child fail to keep up with the child's acquisition of ASL, and parents continue to use homesign, the parents are being lazy, complacent and dumb to fully learn all the complexities of a full-fledged sign language.

  2. Uly said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    If you can live in a country for decades without speaking the dominant language, and fail to see it as an important part of your personal development, how necessary can it *really* be to learn it????

  3. Leonardo Boiko said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    @Uly: my thoughts exactly. He’s 1) asserting it’s very important for Spanish speakers to know English and 2) complaining Spanish speakers don’t care about English? So basically Spanish speakers don’t know what is good for themselves? And we have to forcefully improve their lives by mandating them to use English, even if they don’t want to?

    Come to think of, sounds like the prescriptivist social argument (“I have to bully people to write correctly so that they can learn correct English and stop being persecuted for writing incorrectly]”).

  4. Janice in GA said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

    What's up with that first [sic]?? "…its audience…" is perfectly correct.

    [EB -- thanks, this has been fixed in the text.]

  5. UK said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    IRT Leonard: Those Spanish speakers that hardly learn English have a limited level of success, as Ortega puts it. I think that this was his point; maybe their children will have a simultaneous bilingual proficency, but the train will be gone for the first generation.

  6. Cheryl Thornett said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    Is Mr Ortega planning a way to provde good quality ESL classes staffed by professional teachers at minimal or no cost? Is he planning to put such classes in every neighbourhood where there are substantial numbers of people who either don't speak or don't read and write English? If not, he's just another politician playing to local hostilities.

    There are too many of politicians like this in the UK, and too many journalists willing to play their game. Why won't those people speak English? Probably because you removed the funding and closed their classes.

  7. JRH said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    @Uly, Leonard: Well a lot of the times they manage by relying on their children to communicate for them. For instance: my girlfriend's mother has lived in the US for 30 years and still doesn't understand basic English. At a restaurant, she only looks at the pictures in the menu. Time to go to the bank? My girlfriend has to be there to talk to the teller. Time to meet a new client for her housecleaning business? Yup, my girlfriend does the talking. Guess who takes care of the utilities, taxes, and pretty much anything else that isn't limited to her group of Salvadorian relatives and friends.

    So yeah she gets along just fine without English, no problem. But it's a ridiculous burden on her daughter. The poor girl has her own full-time job and yet she has to make time to do her mother's job for her as well. She would like to have her own life, but filial piety (which is as much a Latino virtue as a Chinese one) mandates that she always has to remain at her mother's beck and call to run errands or make phone calls or do anything else which entails communication with the outside world.

    Eric, you're absolutely right that it's only the first generation that remains monolingual, but you're completely missing the implications this has for the quality of the lives (and relationships) of their interpreters children. In Economics we would call that a big honking negative externality.

    [EB -- this is a good point, and I'm glad you brought it up, though FWIW I don't think Spanish-language media public service announcements are going to change this particular kind of dynamic very much. A (perhaps unconvincing) analogy: should there be PSAs encouraging more computer literacy among older folks, to avoid this sort of thing?]

  8. Vincent said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    You can't begrudge the guy the observation that fluency in English has economic implications. [EB -- and who did?] It distresses me when highly literate upper-class white people get into this business of arguing with lower class white people about acceptance and encouragement of linguistic diversity within the US as though maintaining the status quo, or weak academic activism is going to address the needs of people who have to cope with a reality in their lives that doesn't go away with proclamations that this is or should be a multilingual society. [EB -- and will some Spanish-language media public service announcement address those needs? Please.]

    To my friends who look very different, sounding the same as people with prestige is often the only wedge they have against ingrained bigotry. It doesn't matter what sort of treatment they can expect once they reach the ivory tower, they still have to slog through the rest of America for most of their lives.

  9. woodchopper said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

    @Uly, Leonard speaking as an emigrant from the UK to a non-English speaking country you can get by without the majority language, but your quality of life may be severely limited. As JRH mentioned, there are a whole host of government or commercial services that require a good knowledge of the majority language if someone is to use them.

    Perhaps more importantly, at least spoken language fluency is essential for many jobs. if you don't have those skills your employment prospects are very limited (perhaps to the low paid jobs that are associated with immigrants).

  10. Timothy Martin said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

    …why do people seem to tend to write "the English language" instead of just "English" when making pronouncements like this?

    In this case at least, I think it sounds better. [EB -- Um, what?]

    Regarding the main topic, I'm not sure what contradiction Eric is talking about. Clearly Ortega's complaints are regarding first-generation immigrants, and according to the research Eric himself cited, the first-generation immigrants are mainly monolinguals in their native (non-English) languages.

    [EB -- Peter Taylor got it right: "To say that English should be spoken by all U.S. citizens is rather close to saying that English should be the U.S.'s official language; so he seems to want it to be true without the political cost of declaring it so."]

  11. Faldone said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

    What's up with that first [sic]?? "…its audience…" is perfectly correct.

    The antecedent, media, was already established as plural.

    "… the Spanish-language media in the U.S. have an obligation …'

    [EB -- except, as Dan Milton points out, that was due to my splicing of the text, so it's been fixed.]

  12. Dan Milton said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

    "But for all of the positive purposes served by the Spanish language media in the U.S., the industry is unwittingly shooting its own beneficiaries in the foot by not becoming more proactive in encouraging its audience to seek full fluency in the English language." is a perfectly grammatical sentence.
    It was Eric Baković who changed the subject before his ellipsis from "the Industry" to "the media". and inserted the snarky [sic].

  13. Tom Saylor said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

    Wow. I've got to wonder what Roy Ortega could have said or done to deserve this rant. He reportedly says:

    (1) Spanish-language media in the U.S. have a (moral) obligation to encourage their readership/audience to master English.

    (2) English should not be declared the U.S.'s official language.

    (3) English is the dominant language of the U.S.

    (4) English should be spoken by all U.S. citizens.

    (5) Too many adult immigrants and legal foreign residents living in the U.S. have failed to master English.

    (6) Many U.S. immigrants don't recognize fluency in English as an important part of their personal development.

    One might dispute any of these statements (particularly the normative ones, 1, 2, 4, and 5), but I can't see any logical inconsistency among them. Where's the "outstanding contradiction"? Perhaps Eric Baković simply meant that one or more of these statements contradict his (Baković's) own beliefs. Still, it's hard to make out exactly what Baković is objecting to underneath all the outrage.

  14. Franz Bebop said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 12:23 am

    Imagine if similar advice were being given to English-speakers, that they ought to learn Spanish, or some other language. Would anyone on this blog (of all places) regard this advice as some expression of anti-English bigotry? For heaven's sakes, shouldn't this blog be a place that advocates learning foreign languages?

    I fail to see why Spanish-speakers in the U.S. are in any way exceptional.

    [EB -- Nobody said they were. Why don't you wait for replies to your (rhetorical) questions before making statements like this?]

    If an American moved to Russia, lived there for 15 years, and never learned Russian, what would you think of that person? Would you say that the person should have acquired some basic proficiency after 15 years? Wouldn't you think less of them for living in an English-speaking ghetto rather than mixing among the locals? I'm sure a tale like that would incite a long stream of snarky comments about the supposed insularity and ignorance of Americans.

    So why is the standard different for Spanish-speakers who move to the U.S.? Why is it that so many people on this blog believe that the advice "If you live in country X, then you should learn language x" is an expression of bigotry, in the case where X="United States and x="English" ?

    What about all those Europeans who have no intention of living in the US or the UK but learn English anyway, so that they can make use of an international language, if the need arises — Are they all fools? Are they bigots too?

  15. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 1:01 am

    It's a big topic, but there are different senses of the word "should".

    Should immigrants to the US (or the UK, or Anglophone Canada) learn English? Well, sure, in the weak sense that they'll probably be better off if they do, and more able to relate to their neighbo(u)rs, and have more opportunities available to them.

    However, do Spanish-language media in the US have a special responsibility to make sure people learn English? Are such media causing fewer people to learn English?

  16. Cheryl Thornett said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 2:07 am

    Franz and others, there are substantial English-speaking communities in many countries where other languages are spoken. Sometimes they don't all learn the local language and even send their children to English language schools.
    Southern Spain, for example, has a large immigrant English-speaking community. Many of these people, even though they have settled there permanently, never learn Spanish. Some send their children to English language schools and local schools complain that English children in Spanish schools often make little effort to learn Spanish.
    I teach ESOL in the United Kingdom, and the main barrier here to people learning English is inadequate provision of classes. I understand that this is often the case in the US as well. We (a city adult education programme) have enormous waiting lists every year.
    Some people are able to 'pick up' a language without much outside assistance, but many who only learn this way do not develop language skills which substantially improve their employment prospects.
    I emphatically favour people learning the main language of the country to which they move, and for all the reasons given. But people with little or poor education and limited income need help and positive encouragement to learn. There are benefits for all of us in the long run, because there is less need for interpreters and translators, children do better at school, and people are likely to become net tax payers, rather than net consumers of public benefits because they can get better-paid jobs.
    My challenge to you: find out whether your area provides classes, whether they are 'survival language' only and whether they are affordable and accessible.

  17. Eric Baković said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 2:36 am

    Dan Milton's right, it was my editing job that prompted the [sic] (not snarkily, though, because it wasn't intentional. This has now been fixed.

  18. Peter Taylor said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 3:18 am

    @Tom Saylor, I think the perceived conflict is between 2 and 4. To say that English should be spoken by all U.S. citizens is rather close to saying that English should be the U.S.'s official language; so he seems to want it to be true without the political cost of declaring it so.

  19. Clare said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 4:13 am

    I think what needs to be clearer is the point about English being a majority language. It would be a contradiction to say that not everyone speaks the language that everyone speaks. What Ortega might want to say is that it would be helpful if everyone spoke the language that most people speak.

    Of course as pointed out in the original post, sociolinguists have shown that the shift to English takes place within three generations (not too long) (or 15 years as a second-language? Was that right?) . But there are indeed reasons why speeding up the process further would benefit immigrants (and their children/interpreters, and we expect a speedy transition of English-speakers who emigrate to non-English speaking cultures.

    However there are important social, economic and political differences between English-speaking emigrants and many of the Spanish speaking immigrants in the USA. Wealth and access to teaching services is one, and a flourishing community of native-language speakers is another.

    These, coupled with the linguist's research that the shift to English is more-or-less inevitable and a reaction to the potential underlying racism in Ortega's comments ('we just don't like people not speaking English') seem like good reasons to ignore him, but if he's offering $$$ to support English-teaching services that first-gen immigrants would use and benefit from, maybe we should hold our noses, take his money and run.

  20. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 6:10 am

    IF it would be helpful if everyone spoke the language that most people spoke, shouldn't this be true globally as well? Is this not at the root of most international misunderstanding and economic difficulty today? No? Shrinking back, at what point then does language conflict become a local issue that is too difficult to surmount–and one that requires super outsiders to intervene and resolve by force.

    Is not a person's choice of language, and choice to learn or not learn another, a personal cost-benefit decision whose value can only be judged by the individual making the decision? If I choose to live in Russia for fifteen years without learning the language and to suffer whatever consequences, and I am an adult capable of making that decision, then it is mine to make (just as the poor decisions I make regarding friends, education, residence, investments, spouse, and so forth).

    Many years ago I visited professional colleagues in a southeast Asian country who lived in a gated, ex-pat community, had drivers, gardeners, housekeepers, and maids, spoke only English, and expected to live in such place for the duration of their careers, if not lives. They had no interest in becoming a part of the local culture, much less in learning the language. Whether this was due to a peculiarly American trait, or the ultimately temporary length of their stay, or some other factor, I really cannot say. I did, though, recognize their very real sense of comfort in their knowledge that the compound was "home" to them. I imagine, for first generation immigrants to the US, what little of this effect they can scrape together for themselves they will, and it will give them comfort too. Why would they want to destroy it by learning English?

  21. semuren said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 6:20 am

    I think the "issue" here is really a canard. As the original post points out the Spanish speaking immigrants to the US who do not master English, are, in large part, the first generation. There is really no need for Spanish language media in the US to encourage them to master English. How many of them actively reject the notion that it would be better (status-full, more convenient for everyday life and possibly economically beneficial) to master English? I would say quite close to none. Should the Spanish (or English) language media spend more time encouraging media consumers to strive for economic success, family harmony or personal happiness? These values/orientations are really deeply embedded in contemporary cultural practices/ideologies. No one need make an argument for them, and, in fact, it is often times hard to speak, in a sensible way, with out reinforcing these basic assumptions. I think the status of English, not just in the US but on a global level, is a similarly deeply ingrained assumption. From the average or general societal point of view – leaving aside the very real and big problems the assumption of such a point of view presents – there is little shame in native English speakers not learning other languages, be it in the US, Spain, China or pretty much anywhere. But there is a palpable sense of inadequacy on the part of non-native speakers of English for not having mastered English. Since (adult) first generation immigrants are probably not, for reasons both biological and budgetary, going to master English, Ortega's argument amounts to exhorting Spanish language media to make make this sense of inadequacy more intense.

  22. Tom Saylor said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 8:31 am

    @Peter Taylor: I worry when people argue that saying X is "rather close to" saying Y and that it's therefore OK to attribute Y to anyone who says X. That sort of argument rides roughshod over any kind of nuanced position. Surely there's an important distinction between statements of the form "All Americans should do Z" and statements of the form "The U.S. government should confer special legal status on the doing of Z." A linguist, of all people, should perceive and respect that distinction.

    [EB -- go ahead and worry. My somewhat poor choice of a term of logic with an acceptable colloquial interpretation doesn't mean I lack respect for logic or language. But FWIW, I do believe that following up on a strong normative statement X with "but I don't think X should be the law" is often (and certainly in this case) little more a cowardly way to protect oneself from opposition to the normative statement.]

  23. John Lawler said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 10:05 am

    >(Immediate side note: why do people seem to tend to write "the English language"
    > instead of just "English" when making pronouncements like this?)

    In Pronouncement Mode, three words outweigh one, however Proper it be.

  24. Franz Bebop said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 10:50 am

    In my opinion, the "issue" here is not the immigrants themselves, but rather our perception of Mr. Ortega. Is he a bigot, or not? Did the text of his article reveal some thinly-concealed bigotry, or is it simply unfair to think this about Mr. Ortega? We might disagree with some details of his opinions — perhaps we are more forgiving with first-generation immigrants than he is. But what does this difference in attitude mean?

    Has anyone noticed Mr. Ortega's name? He might be Latino himself. [EB -- so am I, BTW. But so what? Ever hear of self-hating bigotry?] If so, he's basically complaining about a lack of educational achievement among members of his own community. OK, maybe his standards are a bit too high. Maybe he needs to lighten up a bit… but this does not make him a bigot.

    I don't have any complaints about Mr. Ortega. I also have no complaints about Spanish-speaking immigrants. It's self-evident that most of them do in fact learn English, and the ones that don't might be people who just have a harder time learning languages, and you have to have some compassion for such people. So, personally, I don't perceive any big systemic problems. (@Cheryl: The counties where I live offer low-cost ESL classes — lots and lots of classes.)

  25. Cheryl Thornett said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 11:58 am

    Franz, I'm truly pleased to hear that low-cost classes are available where you live.

  26. Tom Saylor said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

    @EB, who said: FWIW, I do believe that following up on a strong normative statement X with "but I don't think X should be the law" is often (and certainly in this case) little more [than] a cowardly way to protect oneself from opposition to the normative statement.

    So someone who says, e.g., "I think all wealthy Americans should contribute generously to charity, but I don't think they should be required to do so by law" is being cowardly? Upholding the distinction between (what one sees as) a moral obligation and a legal obligation is an act of cowardice?

    [EB -- that's why it helps to have put in the "often (and certainly in this case)" bit.]

  27. Peter Taylor said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    @Tom Saylor, I'm not actually a linguist: merely someone who finds language interesting and highly relevant to day-to-day life (as an ex-pat who tries to speak the local language as well as possible, and who also frequently has to answer questions about English).

    However, if you want to get into nuances then I think one of the key words in Sr. Ortega's article is "citizens". If his position is truly mere pragmatism then why would he not say that all U.S. residents should speak English?

  28. michael farris said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

    Made the mistake of clicking on the link (brrrrrr)

    Now I have no problem with encouraging/persuading immigrants (and other longterm residents) to become fluent in the dominant language of the country they move to. None whatsoever.

    What I have a problem with is empty platitudes that don't stand up to logical scrutiny, like: "the Spanish language media in the U.S … is unwittingly shooting its own beneficiaries in the foot by not becoming more proactive in encouraging its audience to seek full fluency in the English language"

    How? Why? And what does that does that sentence truly mean?

    What does 'full fluency' mean? I have the idea that the 'folk definition' of 'fully fluent in English' means never speaking another language. Is that what he means here? Who knows? Without a definition of 'fully fluent' the sentence remains pretty empty.

    I (unlike the author) actually can think of a concrete suggestion or two that the Spanish media might want to try.

    -closed (occasionally open) captioned English subtitles whenever feasible
    -some public service announcements
    -language learning game shows (in Spanish and English)
    -an English course or two

    Beyond that, what should they be doing?

  29. Tom Saylor said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    @EB, who emphasized the limiting effect of the "often (and certainly in this case)" qualifier in "FWIW, I do believe that following up on a strong normative statement X with "but I don't think X should be the law" is often (and certainly in this case) little more [than] a cowardly way to protect oneself from opposition to the normative statement."

    I wonder how you determine when someone is invoking the moral/legal distinction as a matter of principle and when someone's doing it only as a sort of cowardly subterfuge. I'll bet the determination depends heavily on whether you happen to support or oppose the person's politics.

  30. Picky said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    @EB: I don't understand the stuff beginning "And please don't buy the I'm-only-saying-this-for-their-own-good platitude that Ortega is selling here." You go on to say that non-English-speaking immigrants tend to be monolingual by the third generation – but this is a point Ortega makes himself, and why does that mean he's not "saying it for their own good" (if you wish to phrase it as crudely as that?)

    I can tell you from the UK, where the minority languages in these sorts of arguments are from the Indian subcontinent, that this is a very simple subject for those whose views are just a filter on their racism, but it is more complicated for liberals, and therefore liberals need to be more careful in their condemnations.

    Those who wish to stick with their native languages should be quite entitled to do so, of course – but we should understand that their lives would be made much easier if they picked up the majority language, too (and therefore, of course, we should make teaching in the majority language easily available to them).

    I can't see why minority-language media should be particularly obliged to slit their own throats by advocating this; but neither can I see why the fact that the third generation will have the language to hand makes it unacceptable to press for the first generation to have it too.

  31. Timothy Martin said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

    I'm going to have to agree with Tom Saylor here. Ultimately, it doesn't matter why someone decided to invoke the moral/legal distinction – just whether the distinction is valid or not. And I think in this case, it is. I see no contradiction in saying that immigrants should learn English because it will better their lives, but they shouldn't be legally obligated to do so (or whatever else making English the official language of the US would entail).

    Eric, if you think that Ortega was using the word "should" in some sort of stronger sense, I (and maybe a few others here) would appreciate you explaining exactly why it seems that way to you.

  32. kranky said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 12:35 am

    Good discussion, though there is not much that I have not heard frequently in my twenty or thirty years of dealing with this question. But one point does not seem to have been examined, that of what “official language” means in practicality.

    In some comments there seems to be an implicit notion that by making English an “official” language residents will be required or forced (I always love that term) to use it and to eschew any other language. I know of no cases (there may be some) where this is the case. Right now, legal immigration is the law, but several million residents are here illegally and the government has not been able force them to leave. If English were made official with the provision that speaking any other language was illegal (an extremely strong version of “official”) would attempts at enforcement be able to change very much?

    What is happening linguistically with immigrant languages is relatively normal and natural, as several posters have pointed out. Certainly we could hope that older adults with little time and few resources would become competent language learners, but there is little that can be done to make that happen.

    And what do posters mean by “master the language”?

  33. Eric Baković said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 1:16 am

    @ Tom Saylor & Timothy Martin, et al.: picking up on kranky's excellent observation above, the enforcement question is key here. Declaring English the official language of the U.S. would have little practical effect beyond the type of thing that Ortega is advocating.

  34. David Cantor said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 6:36 am

    As an American expat in Switzerland, I deal with this issue personally on a daily basis. We have THREE official languages. What that means here is that one can expect official documents will be available in at least those three languages. For example, a license to operate a boat requires you to pass a test that's available in German, French, or Italian. If you can't read one of those languages, sorry, no license. On the other hand, the driver's exam is available in more than a dozen languages. A resident who wishes to become a citizen must take a test to demonstrate fluency in one of the official languages. The language must be used by a significant fraction of the residents in the Canton where one is applying for citizenship (ie, Italian fluency won't help you in Zürich).

    As adults struggling to learn German, I have to say that the easy availability of English media has certainly reduced the extent of the immersion experience, with the result that we are learning more slowly. Of course here, many natives can also speak English, a very different situation than with Spanish in the US.

    What has probably caused us the most confusion, though, is that TV and radio and casual conversation here are in a different language (Swiss German) than print media or internet (High German).

    We know many (mostly British) expats who have lived here for 20 years or more, and can't speak a word of any of the three official languages.

  35. ppindia said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 8:59 am

    All people should be bilingual at least if not multilingual. More languages you know better it is. Some things can be expressed in your mother tongue only no matter how much you try. therefore some people are never able to learn other/new languages!?? Early childhood exposure is the best way to learn new languages. Average person is unlikely to learn new language as he grows older.
    As a multilingual person I find it interesting that people respond much more positively if you communicate in there language. So learn as many language as possible and try to communicate in their language.
    As far economic argument goes more languages you know you are likely to mix with different people and have more chances of increasing your economic value in society and not have any prejudice against any language or culture.
    I would say that US should make Spanish and English both the national languages so as to encourage bilingualism if not multilingualism.

  36. jmen said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    From what I understand, a number of states in the US have English as an official language often with other languages including Spanish, although I don't quite get all of the legal implications of this.

    I don't know much about the Spanish media that is being discussed but perhaps (if there isn't already), shows that encourage or at least portray characters who are bilingual and show what this is like. In the end, I think most of the monolingual attitudes in the US come more from ignorance than hostility or some form of protectionism.

  37. Joanna said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    Just an observation on what 'full fluency' means for some folks– for some, it apparently means not even having an accent such that they might have to expend an iota of effort to understand you. My former sister-in-law immigrated from Korea, and quickly learned English– even after 20+ years in the country, she was still occasionally insulted by an ignorant patient (she's a nurse) admonishing her to "learn English". And trust me, her English is quite good. She is not the only person I know who has had this type of experience. It seems that people (in particular, people who have not themselves ever tried to learn another language) have unrealistic expectations about what other people should be able to acheive in learning English. If anyone who has not acheived virtually accent-free English counts as 'not knowing English' then it's no wonder the actual data of linguists about the rates of English integration in immigrant communities keeps getting ignored.

  38. Ken Brown said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

    What proportion of Spanish-descended people in the USA are first-generation anyway? A minority I would have thought. And of those who are what proportion had no exposure to English before they migrated?

    And there are at least some communities in the USA where Spanish has been the normal language for as longer than English has. Their position isn't so much like that of Asians in the UK as like that of the Welsh. OK, they will have more job opportunities if they speak English as well, but I bet most of them do, just as effectively all Welsh speakers also speak English.

    Why on earth should their newspapers and radio and TV stations and publishers be forced to try to sell English to them? Any more than Welsh media should be forced to push English?

    Anyway, its not as if speaking Spanish crippled anyone's chanced of participating in the modern world (an accusaton somtimes made against Welsh and any number of African or Asian languages). Its the third or fourth most widely spoken language in the world (depending how you count), probably has the world's second publishing industry (after English), is one of the primary vehicles of modern European culture, its arguably the number one language for serious literature. Maybe Anglo-Americans could improve their life chances by picking up some Spanish.

    (Says someon who knows hardly a word of Spanish, or any other language than English. I blame the English education system personally…)

  39. Picky said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

    Ken: Others will know better than me, but I think the issue is that there are plenty of Spanish-speaking people in the United States who are first generation and who don't live in communities where Spanish has been spoken commonly and continuously for as long as English: in other words who are more in the position of British Asians than Welsh. Or am I wrong?

    For the record, the official language of the UK is English, although Welsh has a special official status within the principality. Government (and particularly local government) literature and information is, however, widely available in the more common Asian languages, especially in those areas where there is a considerable Asian population.

  40. Ed said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 9:31 pm

    I just want the Spanish media to provide English subtitles like SAP. I have to make do with the horrible anglo version of Ugly Betty. There oughta be a law!

  41. Ed said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

    > I do believe that following up on a strong normative statement X with "but I > don't think X should be the law" is often (and certainly in this case) little
    > more a cowardly way to protect oneself from opposition to the normative
    > statement.

    BTW some (ok one) of my best friends are hispanic.

  42. Aaron Davies said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 6:49 am

    One thing that I don't see getting much commentary is the extent to which people may be deriving policy beliefs from simple personal experience. Something like a supermarket cashier whose only English seem to be the numbers, or a waitress whose English is limited to the menu items (and does not extend to answering any questions about them) can be incredibly frustrating to deal with, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if most of "middle America"'s interest in "English-only" movements comes from things like that.

  43. Terry Collmann said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 9:49 am

    Picky: "the official language of the UK is English". Really? There's a law that says this?

  44. Picky said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    As far as I know there is no single Act which specifies English as the official language (well, you know what the British constitution is like), but it is declared to be such by the Government, it is an official language of the EU, and many Acts – such as the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act, or the Laws in Wales Acts and many others – establish its status effectively.

    The Welsh Language Act and the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act made those languages official and equal to English (ie implying that English was official, too).

  45. Chud said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    I've noticed that Telemundo is close-captioning many of its shows. I was going to explain all that the best I could, but Wikipedia can do it better (telenovelas are Spanish-language soap operas that typically run for several months, unlike the American soap operas which run for decades):

    Telemundo is a Spanish-language American television network. Launched in San Juan, Puerto Rico by Angel Ramos in 1954, it is the second-largest Spanish-language content producer in the world. It is also the second-largest Spanish language network in the United States, behind Univision.

    Telemundo is one of the only Spanish-language network currently producing telenovelas in the United States. Unlike Univision, many programs on Telemundo air with closed captions in both Spanish and English. Univision only has Spanish captions. The network reaches 93 percent of U.S. Hispanic households in 142 markets via over-the-air, cable and satellite TV. An average of 1,035,000 total viewers (aged 2 and older) tuned in for its weekday prime time lineup during 2007. Telemundo is headquartered at 2290 West 8th Avenue in Hialeah, Florida, near Miami.

  46. Ed said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

    Chud: Really?!? That's great. Must watch Telemundo.

  47. Jeremy said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

    As an American living in Japan, I get to experience this sort of attitude from the other side. I know many people who can't speak Japanese, or speak only a little, yet manage to get by in society. Granted, these are usually English-speakers, which is kind of a prestige language in its own right here. For a grittier view, it's better to look at South American or SE Asian people. Many of the ones I know have a decent command of spoken Japanese, but like most foreigners here are functionally illiterate. I've been here 5 years (and even though I should probably read more kanji than I do — lazy!) and still, getting a letter from anybody is an ordeal. I have a rolodex of friends I call up to explain what I need to do. It's especially fun when it's something like a letter from immigration saying they need such and such documents to finalize my visa or they'll deport me.

    And as a former ESL teacher in Indianapolis, I can tell you there is no shortage of Spanish-speakers looking to learn English. Most of my students worked 14-18-hour days and then came in to study. But the business model didn't seem to be there. Most of the ESL schools there were associated with a college, people on the lower socioeconomic rungs don't earn enough to eat, send money home, AND afford lessons. Yes, there are volunteer lessons, but if they're anything like the free lessons in Japan, the quality's poor or they're associated with a religion (Mormons on mission here give free English lessons). It's very different from places like Vancouver or Brisbane, where younger students from wealthier countries (Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia) all want to go and can afford to pay.

  48. Nijma said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    I can think of a lot more reasons for a lack of English fluency than the assertion that Mexicans "simply don't recognize fluency in English as an important part of their personal development".

    Reasons my students give me for not coming to class at our tuition free, community college based ESL program are 1) work 2) no car 3) hospitalized 4) husband wants them at home to make meals 5) can't afford day care for children while in class.

    In addition, a lot of the Mexican born students do not have good skills in their first language. A majority of my students–and I see their registration forms–have not finished the 6th grade; a surprising number say they dropped out around the third grade. Various stories are given, often having to do with corporal punishment. One of my current adult students who is just learning the alphabet says her father would not allow her to attend school.

    Even when local programs make an effort to bring programs to where the students are, or to have classes on weekends and evenings, the program itself runs into challenges. More and more, my students are multi-level, and although textbook publishers are responding to this change in the student mix, it is still difficult to teach a group that comes to the classroom with hugely divergent skills. For the students who take classes at locations away from the school, mostly at public schools while their children are in class, there is usually only one level offered, the first level. I have some students who wish to take the GED who have now taken first level ESL for three years in a row. Imagine their fluency level if we had been able to provide classes with a better fit.

    Finally the linguistics field itself seems to be in disarray, as far as career paths. Our hours are limited to part time so we will not be able to qualify for health insurance and other benefits. Class hours have been cut repeatedly and are currently being cut back even more. The state legislature threatens to cut even more of our funding, which will bring a decease in federal matching funds. Many of our teachers have elementary, not adult teaching backgrounds and have their masters degree in something other than a linguistics related area. I confess when I went back to school for an MA, I rejected a language type degree out of hand because of the lack of opportunity in the field. So probably I will won't stay in teaching, although I truly enjoy both learning and teaching language.

  49. Nijma said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    How much money did the federal government just spend bailing out banking institutions?

    Now imagine that money applied to programs for English…

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