One of the biggest frustrations for non-immigrants is that sometimes it seems like immigrants—and, some presume, especially undocumented immigrants—just do not learn English. If you’re going to be in this country, they feel, you need to learn the unifying language of this country.
Most immigrants actually probably would not disagree: almost every immigrant I’ve talked to would like to learn English. They know that they are likely to find much better jobs if they can speak English, that they will be less reliant on others for assistance, and that they will be able to interact more easily with their non-immigrant neighbors. And, in fact, most immigrants are learning English. It just takes some time.
You see, language acquisition can be a very challenging thing, especially the older that you get. The way that God made our minds, young children can acquire a language remarkably quickly, but our brains just do not function the same way when we’re fifty or sixty. That’s why, amongst Hispanic immigrants in particular, only 35% of immigrants speak English well, but 91% of immigrants’ children do. As has been the case historically, it usually takes a full generation for full language integration to take place.
That said, immigrants are trying to learn English. English as a Second Language classes are full and with waiting lists in many parts of the country, because there is more demand than there is supply. With time, though, most immigrants do learn English. While only a third of those immigrants in the country for less than a decade speak English well, but three quarters of those who have been here for more than thirty years.
It’s also valuable to remember our own history. I grew up with a somewhat romanticized idea of my own family’s immigrant history. They worked hard, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and learned English the day they got off the boat—but of course that’s not entirely true. Learning English, and integrating into an entirely new culture, has always been challenging, and it has always taken some time. In fact, a recent study suggests that today’s immigrants are actually integrating faster than the immigrants of a century ago. But, now as at many other points in our country’s history, integration is hindered when the receiving society does not do its part to facilitate integration, and when many in the society are doing their best to keep new immigrants from becoming American.
A century ago, inspired by a challenge by evangelical leader Howard Grose, who wrote of the “incoming millions” as “an opportunity” to “carry the gospel to [foreigners] in our own land,” many evangelical men and, in particular, women sought to welcome those arriving through Ellis Island, even when these mostly low-income immigrants were scorned by much of society. The Church has historically been one of the primary institutions through which immigrants integrated into the larger society, and it can continue to be. Providing technically excellent ESL classes or tutoring is a great way for churches or others who want to reach out to immigrants to both meet a tangible need and build relationships. An even more basic need is for friendship: many immigrants leave their families behind as they come to a new country; by building relationships with immigrants we can help them adjust to a new country—and find that we have a lot to learn from them, too.