The San Francisco Chronicle headline read: "43% in state speak other than English at home." [September 23, 2008] Albeit without mentioning the role of immigration, reporter Tyche Hendricks presented a balanced reporting job on the importance of the English language.
" 'It's very disturbing when 1 in 5 people is not communicating in the common language,' said Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. 'Culturally, it creates a sort of tribalism. This country doesn't have a predominant race or religion; it just has values. That's a very thin bond. We have shared values and a shared Constitution; we also have to have a shared culture and language….When immigrants congregate in enclaves, they have a harder time learning English and becoming fully American,' said Hanson, author of the book Mexifornia: A State of Becoming. 'It's time to go back to the melting pot, control the borders and let assimilation, integration and intermarriage work,' he said."
The Chron piece then allows a second opinion:
" 'It's not that immigrants don't want to integrate—it's that they need more opportunities to learn English,' said Jin Sook Lee, an assistant professor of education at UC Santa Barbara, who remembers the oversubscribed English-as-a-second-language classes she used to teach at community college.
"But she also doesn't believe California's diversity of languages is something to fear.
" 'The fact that people speak a different language in their homes is one of the most untapped resources in our country," Lee said. "With globalization in economics and politics, we need language competence. These speakers have a great potential to fill out this language gap in our society.' "
And that is not going to be simple:
"In California, we have a lot more recent immigrants. ... It's dramatic," said Russell Rumberger, director of the University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute. 'Our state is totally dependent on immigrants. But that's not to say it doesn't present challenges, teaching people English and integrating them into the country.' "
Whoa, Dr. Rumberger. As I recall over 30 million Californians are not immigrants! But at least the article allows its readers to think for themselves as how extremely off the wall that "totally dependent" view is.
My many non-immigrant friends and business associates are keenly worried by this fact reported by Hendricks: "California has the largest proportion of immigrant residents in the country, at 27 percent of the population, the census figures show."
But of course all Americans who aren't brain dead realize that the California phenomenon is spreading, as more immigrants settle in the South and Midwest, taking jobs from citizens.
It is not surprising at all that, "In California, the direction is toward more settled immigrants and a second generation and increasing language proficiency among the foreign-born," [said Michael Fix, co-director of the National Center for Immigrant Integration Policy at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.] "The share of people who speak Spanish at home who speak English as well has risen over time. So instead of the worrisome story about (a lack of) cohesion, there's a positive story here. ... The share of new immigrant arrivals in California is going down, so that's giving a chance for immigrants to integrate."
A bit of a Pollyanna, I think, Mr. Fix. As Roy Beck, President of NumbersUSA has noted, the period of 1925 to 1965 was the Golden Age of US Immigration, when an average of under 200,000 newcomers per year could be integrated comfortably into American life. The millions of legal and illegal aliens here now so far surpasses that era that cultural integration has reached crisis proportions.
This article notes the dilemma of bilingual instruction and the importance of making English an urgent priority—although obviously not enough of a priority:
"California has long debated how to teach children who are English learners. In 1998, the state's voters approved Proposition 227, which mandated that English learners master the language through intensive, short-term instruction—usually lasting a year—rather than taking bilingual classes throughout their time in school."
Under the bold subheading, "Essential skill," the article concludes with a highly sensible exposition of the language issue.
"'Learning English is an essential skill for immigrants and their children, both for their personal success and for the good of the nation,' said Tomás Jiménez, an Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy think tank.
" 'To borrow a non-English phrase, English is the lingua franca of the United States,' said Jiménez, who also teaches sociology at Stanford University. 'There are folks on the right who want people to speak only English, and there are folks on the left who think it's unimportant. We shouldn't be stamping out people's languages, but English should be additive. There are some legitimate concerns on both sides.' "
Hey, Professor, "additive" implies non-primary.
But Jimenez does understand that " 'Government could do more to make English classes available to adults and help them integrate into society'.....He pointed to Santa Clara County's Office of Human Relations, which promotes citizenship, English and leadership among immigrants, as a good example."
(Congratulate Chronicle's Hendricks)
Donald A. Collins [email him], is a freelance writer living in Washington DC and a former long time member of the board of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. His views are his own.