Readers React: Does speaking English make an immigrant more American?

A sign is posted outside an election site in New York City that reads "Vote Here" in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Bengali.
(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

The Times’ meditations over the last several weeks on what U.S. citizenship means in the 21st century -- exploring topics such as dual nationality, byzantine immigration laws, permanent residency versus citizenship and, most recently, English proficiency -- have elicited mostly thoughtful, measured responses from readers.

I note this from the outset because strident, reactionary rhetoric is a defining characteristic of the national debate on immigration, and the letters and online comments we receive typically reflect that. This isn’t entirely discouraging: From my vantage point as someone who spends several hours each day reading and editing letters and interacting with Times readers, it’s obvious that members of the public feel personally vested in the outcome of immigration policy making.

But there’s still plenty to be discouraged about when public frenzy prevents busloads of migrant women and children who had entered the country illegally from being processed or calcifies the legislative process so badly that a reform bill passed by a bipartisan majority in the Senate last year needlessly gets held up in the House.


In light of that, the letters responding to our editorials and Op-Ed articles on citizenship provide hopeful reminders that this discussion is still worth having. The most recent editorial in the series, opposing making English the nation’s official language but supporting efforts to make immigrants proficient, has so far drawn especially thoughtful responses from immigrants and natural-born Americans alike. Several letters draw connections between the values expressed in the editorial and local policy issues (the first letter below is a prime example).

Here are several of those letters, some of which may be published in print later this week.

Jill Gluck of West Hollywood laments cuts to the adult education programs that help immigrants learn English:

Thank you for your editorial, “English for Americans: Encouraged but not required.” The conclusion that more adult education is one solution to the language “problem” is right on.

As an adult educator in the Los Angeles Unified School District for the last 28 years, I have seen the flip side of the argument that immigrants don’t want to learn English. Daily in schools across this city, thousands of immigrants find the time between working long hours, raising a family and dealing with transportation, economic and health issues to come to school and learn English.

That the LAUSD has decimated the adult education program in the last few years does nothing to help integrate this population -- more often legal than not -- into our society. The realization that speaking English not only helps the economy of our city (and country) but also improves the education of the children of immigrants, eventually affecting us all, is paramount to solving this problem.


We educators cannot lose hope that the powers that be will finally grasp this connection and move us toward a system that recognizes the vital role English plays in this society and that all who live here, regardless of age or legal status, should have access to education that supports and promotes the development of proficient language skills.

Los Angeles resident Liz Cohen encourages those concerned about English proficiency to do something about it:

Certainly I have no answers to the challenge of encouraging immigrants to learn English. But my little assistance has been to arrange a “Conversational English” participatory class, where people for whom English is a second or third language can come for an hour and practice their English.

Since it’s held at a senior center, the participants are over 55 or so, but they are hard workers, having already mastered the challenge of living in a new country, speaking a new language and understanding and abiding by new customs. Perhaps more people could offer an opportunity to those who need such a place to practice rather than complaining about the lack of capability.

Daniel Cano of Los Angeles, an English professor at Santa Monica College, says not all American heroes spoke perfect English:

Equating one’s American-ness with speaking English well enough to read the Declaration of Independence is not only disingenuous but insulting to the thousands of Americans who served, and serve, in this country’s armed forces.

Tell the Navajo code talkers that because of their less than stellar English abilities, they are not Americans. Without their Dine language, the war in the Pacific would have taken many more American lives than it did.


And how about Guy Louis Gabaldon, an East L.A. boy, raised and taught Japanese by an Issei family in Bellflower? On Saipan, after numerous forays alone into enemy territory, Gabaldon convinced a dispirited enemy to surrender. Gabaldon has been credited with capturing, single-handedly, more than 1,000 Japanese soldiers, for which he received a Silver Star.

When speaking of whom is an American, too many fail to take into account those men and women who offered the U.S. the ultimate sacrifice: their lives, regardless of the language they spoke.

North Hollywood resident Stephany Yablow says we shouldn’t coddle non-English speakers:

I arrived in America speaking not a word of English. I became fluent and proficient within one year. How? I was immersed in the language. I did not take an English as a Second Language class, and there was no bilingual education.

Why should any immigrant seek to become proficient in English when the DMV handbook is available in at least 10 different languages, when you can order replacement trash bins in several languages, when interpreters are provided in government and medical facilities, and when you can even vote in your native tongue? If none of this was made available, immigrants would have no choice but to learn English.

Chamba Sanchez of Silver Lake says a lack of desire to learn English isn’t the problem:


“The American Dream can only be dreamed in English,” I heard someone once say back in the 1990s. As an immigrant, I have experienced the benefits of being proficient in the English language. I encourage my immigrant relatives and friends to make an effort to learn it.

I think collectively our community will be better off if most of our immigrant members can become proficient in the English language. It is good for them and it is good for our democracy.

I have yet to meet an immigrant who wouldn’t like to speak and write English. Thus, we should make adequate investments in our immigrant community and advocate for funding ESL classes.

This is part of an ongoing conversation exploring the meaning of citizenship in America today. For more, join us at and #21stCenturyCitizen. We’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts, rebuttals and experiences with us at

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