Forcing immigrants to learn English can be counter-productive
Lev Golinkin left Soviet Ukraine as a nine-year-old in1990.With assistance from HIAS, a Jewish organisation that helps refugees, his family made its way to Indiana. In America, not having English felt “like having a massive stroke, only instead of being sent to the hospital and getting help you have to go out and get a job.” His experience suggests immigrants don’t have to be told how important it is to speak the language of a new country: they are more painfully aware of it than natives can ever know.
Yet they are often assumed to need coercion. On May16th, for example, Donald Trump vowed to ensure that immigrants to America learn English and pass a civics exam before arriving.
Such strictures might seem to serve national cohesion. In fact, the wrong policies and tone do the reverse, as Vicky Fouka of StanfordUniversity found in a study of German-Americans living a century ago. With its large Germanimmigrant population, Ohiowas the first of several states to permit teaching in German alongside English. By 1900 some 4% of elementary-school pupils in America were taught at least partly in German. After the first worldwar anti-German sentiment led to the end of those programmes and, in Ohio and Indiana, even to a ban on teaching German as a foreign language to young children.