by Christopher Paslay
During the summer of 1998 I backpacked through seven different European countries: Ireland, England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Denmark. One thing that stunned me was that everyone—no matter which town or region—seemed to speak fluent English. Whether I was struggling to order a meal or asking directions to the train, people would drop their first language to accommodate me in my own tongue.
The language situation is much different in the United States. Our mentality is the opposite of Europe’s, and can be summed up in the infamous sign at Geno’s Steaks in South Philadelphia: When ordering, please speak English.
Americans seem to have a genuine hostility toward those who come to this country and can’t speak English.
The Notebook, an independent newspaper covering Philadelphia public schools, dedicated their fall 2008 edition to the theme of immigration and English Language Learners. In their editorial, “An asset squandered,” The Notebook analyzes Philadelphia’s growing population of immigrants. The conclusion they draw is interesting: immigrants—specifically, English language learners—should be viewed as an asset rather than a liability.
The Notebook’s reasoning is that “today’s English language learners could be the next generation of bilingual teachers, doctors, law enforcement officers, and businesspeople essential to the increasingly global and multicultural economy.” They go on to argue that “this can only happen if they get a good education.”
As an English teacher in a Philadelphia public high school, I understand the importance of children having solid communication skills. Knowing how to read, write and speak proper English is essential to succeeding in school as well as in society. And with an influx of non-English speakers coming to America, our country is going to need well educated bilingual future leaders.
However, I do believe the conclusion drawn in The Notebook’s editorial is a tad idealistic. For starters, they fail to indicate whether the recent waves of immigrants to Philadelphia are legal or illegal. A 2006 survey by the US Census Bureau reports that 6.3% of Philadelphian’s are not U.S. Citizens. I realize that a child is a child, regardless of citizenship, and that all children deserve an education.
But our city’s resources are limited, especially those of the Philadelphia School District. In my opinion, illegals have no right to special language programs, period. In fact, I believe the government needs to do more to keep illegals out of the country all together. Just like I tell my students that there are rules in the classroom that need to be followed to keep order and balance, so are there rules in this country that must be obeyed and respected.
So who is responsible for teaching illegals the English language? The people who brought them here illegally, of course. Parents, grandmothers, aunts or uncles. They must take on the burden of their new venture into America.
The push for more resources for English language learners has a built-in shield for illegal immigrants. This is an issue that must be brought to light.
Of course, the question still remains: What about those children who are here legally? This is a tricky subject as well. In light of my travels outside the United States, I’m more open to accommodating English language learners. However, responsibility for teaching them English must be equally embraced by parents and the community; teachers and schools should not be made the scapegoat for their language deficiencies.
Education does not take place in a vacuum. Parents and the community should take equal responsibility for educating legal English language learners, while illegals should be taught the language in their own homes.