Do Today’s Immigrants Refuse to Learn English?

Do Today’s Immigrants Refuse to Learn English?

One of the most prolific myths by Nativists is the claim immigrants refuse to learn English or assimilate. Somehow we are expected to believe that today’s immigrants are different than yesterday’s. Historically every new crop of immigrants has struggled with the English language. It turns out this same pattern has been repeated throughout history. According to the Dillingham Immigration Commission Report, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe would never assimilate, and the children of non-English speaking foreign-born fathers were retarded. This massive report from 1907-11 formed the foundation for severe restrictions on immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and bars on non-European immigration. From Table 76 of the report:

immigrants who refuse to learn English

Dillingham Immigration Commission – Retarded Children of foreign-born non-English speaking fathers.

During colonial times there was a widespread belief that German immigrants would never assimilate, never learn English, etc. For some reason the immigrants who were never supposed to assimilate eventually do!

I’ve heard this claim about today’s immigrants often enough that I did some digging. Today’s immigrants are no different than yesterday’s! According to a 2006 study by PEW Research, 92% of Latinos consider teaching English to the children of immigrants is very important, as compared to 87% of whites and 83% of blacks. 96% of foreign born Latinos consider teaching English very important. Contrary to public misconception, Latinos, especially foreign born Latinos, actually consider teaching English more important than any other group! Notably:

As telling, perhaps, is a look at how many people said teaching English to immigrant children is not important. Among Latinos, only 2% held this view compared to 27% of non-Latinos.

There are two organizations at the forefront of the official English movement, U.S. English and Pro-English. They were both founded by the same John Tanton who founded the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform, Center for Immigration Studies, NumbersUSA, and numerous other groups related to immigration, population control, conservation, and the environment! U.S. English and Pro-English seek to pass laws that require government services be provided in English only. Some states have even passed laws mandating that written drivers license exams only be given in English, which most new immigrants cannot pass.

Few Americans and few immigrants disagree with the goal of a common language that binds us, English is already the de facto language of government, and no one has seriously proposed that any language other than English as the language of government. However, these two organizations seek to deny ANY government services in any language other than English. The answer is there’s a hidden agenda to make America less welcoming to all immigrants because other organizations with ties to U.S. English and Pro-English have a goal to drastically reduce levels of legal immigration.

There’s no rational reason to deny drivers licenses to immigrants who are not proficient in English. Traffic signs, etc. are designed to be independent of language (if you don’t believe me take a drive across Europe). However, a handful of states now prohibit written drivers exams in any language other than English, while other states such as Iowa permit written tests in other languages but don’t make available drivers guides in other languages, making it near impossible for many immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. Missouri is one of the latest. The end result will probably be that legal immigrants and perhaps many naturalized citizens in Missouri will drive without a license due to inability to pass a written exam in English. We don’t condone violating the law, but people do have to work, after all, don’t they?

The author of the bill stated his constituents were tired of hearing people speaking in Spanish! Do you suppose his bill had more to do with xenophobia (irrational fear or dislike of foreigners) than public safety? To use a Minnesota term that was originally Swedish, you betcha!


Bob Quasius is the founder and president of Cafe Con Leche Republicans

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Discuss: “Do Today’s Immigrants Refuse to Learn English?”

  1. January 27, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say immigrants today are the same as before–though, certainly, they exhibit many of the same patterns. There are some fundamental differences to the realities of today’s immigrant vs. yesterday’s. First, mass media and communication greatly facilitate connection to the country of origin, and hence its language than before. Today’s immigrant doesn’t have to abandon his/her language as quickly. Personally, I think this is a good thing, and gives me hope that we may yet become a nation of polyglots. Monolingual cultures are far less interesting and dynamic.

    I do agree that there is a fundamental xenophobia underlying much of the English-only proposals (and motivating its proponents). I believe it to be essentially a competitive strategy that the majority is using to try and hold on to its tenuous power.

    El español es una lengua hermosa, rica y antigua. No hay quien pueda negarlo. Newt Gingrich dice que es lengua del “ghetto” porque no sabe nada, aunque piensa que sabe todo.

    Posted by Lisa Amor Petrov (@laprofe63)
    • January 27, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

      Good points. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

      Posted by bquasius
  2. January 2, 2013 at 12:36 am #

    Another great and interesting thread, Bob Quasius !!!

    Back at the end of the 19th century – Settlement Houses, like Jane Adam’s Hull House in Chicago, spent a great deal of time attempting to “Americanize” immigrants – by teaching them all English – and in the process – destroying a Great Number of Foreign Language Newspapers and Foreign Cultural traditions and celebrations – ALL to the detriment of American Being a “Melting Pot” of DIFFERENT ideas and orientations !!!!!

    You are RIGHT ON, Bob Q. with everything that you say in your opening comments of this thread !!!!

    American needs – and BENIFITS FROM – NON-Nativist ideas and orientations !!!

    Just agreein’

    Robert Allen

    Posted by boba123
  3. February 10, 2015 at 7:42 pm #

    English is the number one language in the US and elsewhere in other countries of the world. I do believe that learning another language is challenging-I find Spanish to be diificult to really hard
    proficent in. However, having said that, I do speak enough to get by. I find an interesting twist-the US is mainly an English speaking country, and has been for over 200 years, but suddenly, I see a biligual direction happening-especially in California, and other border states. I resent this.
    Angelenos are supposed to learn Spanish, while north of the borders are acommadated. I think it’s outrageous!

    Posted by Cathy Hamlin
  4. September 29, 2015 at 10:33 pm #

    Oh well for all its worth I can say that over the last 20-30 years the wave of non English speaking Dominicans into where I live has resulted in nothing but barber shops, garages, and day-care’s everywhere. Everybody’s poor except the pols, cops, and drug dealers. There’s lots of clubs around for outsiders to come in and cause trouble. Lots of gangs and grafitti too. Sound nice? And oh yeah, still not hearin’ much English around here…

    Posted by Francisco
  5. January 9, 2016 at 8:57 pm #

    I came to this country at the age of ten, only speaking German. Went to school and in half a year spoke English. Kids naturally learn languages — lots has to do with the fact that kids play with other kids. Adults have to take measures that they have lots of contact with speakers of English. For what it is worth, I think that special language instruction for children is not necessary.

    I am not at all fond of “Press … for Espanol”. Es necesario aprender ingles. (No claim that my Spanish is perfect.)

    Spoke to my parents only in German, but usually dream in English. Yes, I still am fluent in German.

    Posted by Manny
  6. July 16, 2016 at 9:00 am #

    There are plenty of reasons a person should know at least the basics of the language of the new land he is moving into. But if for no other reason, for the health of your life…learn English. I work in a hospital in Houston. Too many Spanish speaking patient’s who cannot communicate with the doctors nurses, and other Healthcare staff, that are trying to save their lives.

    Posted by Tommy


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