People in America need to learn how to speak English

By Kenneth Kowald

In the current discussion of immigration reform, learning to speak, read and write English with some efficiency is one of the requirements for citizenship that everyone seems to agree on. It is something someone applying for citizenship today has to be able to do, but there are some exemptions to that requirement. They should be few in number.

Some years ago, I was called for grand jury duty at the Supreme Court building in Kew Gardens. During the opening session, all of us were in a large courtroom and the judge went through information which we needed. At one point, one of those who had been called asked to be excused because he claimed he might not understand the proceedings because of his poor English.

The judge was visibly disturbed. He refused to grant the request on the basis that the man had been called because he was a citizen and supposedly had passed an English examination to receive his citizenship. The judge gave us a short course on the duties of citizenship. Non-citizens are not called for jury duty.

I do not know how the matter was resolved, but it got me thinking about the question of English and how it is written, read and spoken. That has been on my mind for some time.

At least twice in the last few months I have read about businesses having trouble recruiting people for jobs. Yes, there were jobs available, but not enough people to fill them!

The problems were not technical skills. These companies are on the cutting edge of their technology and can find many people with the needed skills.

What they cannot find, however, are people who are able to write or speak English properly. As one entrepreneur pointed out, some of his clients are among America’s largest firms and he cannot have employees who cannot write or speak English properly, no matter how good their technical skills.

This is not a matter of immigrants or accents. This is a matter of inadequate English.

I will leave it to the educational pundits to work on that one. It would seem one of the deficiencies of education today is in the teaching of English.

These problems led me to consider the idea of English as a Second Language. In my research, aided by a young friend, I could not find that there was such a thing in days of yore, when non-English speakers came to our shores. Somehow, those Italian, German, Jewish, etc., kids managed to learn to read, write and speak English without ESL. And that is as recently as the 20th century.

I am sure when my grandparents grew up, their parents, all from the Darmstadt-Hesse section of Germany, spoke some form of German at home. My grandparents, born here, learned English from the world in general and the schools they attended. They may even have helped their parents with their English problems.

Again, I will leave it to the educational pundits to explain that. Do we really know whether ESL is cost-effective?

Hamlet said, “Speak the speech, I pray you, trippingly on the tongue.” I would suggest that the admonition of Shakespeare applies to the written word, too. It would seem those may be hard tests for too many in our country. Why?

It is not easy to learn a new language, especially as one grows older. I managed three years of French at Newtown High School and 5 1/2 years of Spanish at Newtown and City College, but I never learned to speak either properly. In those days, it was all about translating, not speaking.

That has changed, for the better, but learning a new language is no bed of roses for anyone.

Not being able to speak, read and write English with some efficiency in the United States is a great handicap in this day of global connections.

Why should that be?

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