As a retired Lodi Unified School District ESL instructor who spent nearly 25 years teaching the San Joaquin Valley’s adult immigrants how to speak English — or at least trying to teach them — the recently released findings from the U.S. Census Bureau disappoint me.
My students included migrant workers from Mexico and Central America, Southeast Asian refugees and immigrants from all corners of the world. Before I left Lodi, I added up the different countries my students represented and came up with 44.
According to the Bureau’s latest report, less than half of immigrants living in the United States speak English “very well,” and about 13 percent don’t speak English at all. Another major finding: immigrants are less likely to speak English at home today than they were in 1980. Thirty-five years ago, 70 percent spoke a language other than English at home; today, 85 percent. The data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey.
With the nation’s estimated immigrant population over age 5 at nearly 41 million, that means about 20 million residents struggle to communicate, while another 5 million can only interact with those who speak their native language.
Mexicans, who comprise more than a quarter of legal and illegal immigrants, and Guatemalans are the two nationalities least likely to have learned English. Among Mexicans, 29 percent say they don’t speak English well, and 18 percent don’t speak it at all. Guatemalan immigrants, who number about 852,000, rank lowest with 31 percent not speaking English well, and 18 percent not at all.
What the ACS survey doesn’t identify is its definition of “very well.” In 1986, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act mandated 40 hours of classroom ESL instruction, teachers were required to give exit exams to gauge students’ conversational English skills as a condition of their permanent resident status. When I would ask, for example, “What color is your house?” or “What is your child’s name?” I often got questioning looks and would mark N/R, nonresponsive, on my grade sheet. The same students, however, may have been able to order unprompted in a restaurant even though they might be speaking English haltingly.
As for those 6 percent on the survey who were identified as unable to speak English at all even after three decades in the U.S., that’s hard to understand.
For the majority, their children speak English, perhaps even fluently. English-language television, radio and newspapers are readily available and helpful tools in mastering a new language. The News-Sentinel offered complimentary copies to my classes, which I encouraged the students to take home to read.
I emphasized to my mostly young adult students, who will spend more of their lives in the U.S. than they did in their native countries, that while it’s easy to live in diverse America without English, such a life is limiting, unrewarding and ultimately unfulfilling. If they came to the U.S. to pursue a better life, as they claimed, then English must be part of that life. I’m sorry I didn’t do a more effective job.
Nevertheless, as I look back, my Lodi ESL experience was the best job I ever held. And I’m happy to say that, even years later, I’m still in touch with many of my former pupils. Those who did master English and went on to become citizens are gainfully employed and raising happy families.
Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.