As Congress weighs a Senate measure to make English the national or common language of the United States, many of the immigrants the legislation would affect say they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The need to learn English” is what Colombian immigrants Claudia Lopez and Christian Echeverry say drives them to attend night classes twice a week at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, near Azalea Park. They do so even though they have to bring their two daughters because they can’t afford baby-sitting.
They know that speaking English can open doors. And despite concerns from immigrant advocates who see the language measures as divisive, some newcomers, such as Lopez and Echeverry, echo advocates of the proposed legislation who say the U.S. is within its rights to decide what language to call its own.
It’s one reason English classes are in high demand in Orlando, where the immigrant population has surged as more Mexicans, Colombians, Venezuelans and Dominicans discover Central Florida’s strong job market.
Whenever free courses are offered, community groups say, waiting lists quickly soar from dozens to hundreds.
“One sees more opportunities with English,” Lopez, 33, said in Spanish. “You can connect to other people and get better jobs. I personally think that Americans become exasperated when we don’t understand what they say. I get frustrated, too.”
The immigration-reform bill passed Thursday by the Senate included a provision declaring English the official national language, sending immigrants such as Lopez the message that they should learn English if they want to live in this country.
In Senate votes on May 18, an amendment made English “the national language.” Another called it “the common and unifying language” of the United States. Both proposals stated that government should not be expected to provide services in any other language, unless specified by law, as in bilingual ballots and bilingual education.
But the language measures, some critics say, do not address a real problem.
“The vote was a waste of time. English is the de facto language of government and business in this country,” said Kenya Dworkin y Mendez, a Hispanic-studies professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “The officialization of the language is simply a rhetorical exercise. . . . Hispanic immigrants are learning and becoming English monolinguals faster than previous generations of immigrants.”
Numbers show that Hispanics — now the majority of the U.S. immigrant population — are not only learning English, but also are losing their language in the process.
A 2002 national survey by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 60 percent of all Hispanics either are bilingual or speak mostly English. Moreover, 59 percent of first-generation immigrants eventually become bilingual or even prefer English. By the second generation of U.S.-born Hispanics, only 3 percent prefer Spanish.
“It’s happening with all immigrants,” said Eduardo Blanchet, director of Berlitz Language Center in south Orlando. “Nowadays, the U.S. government is desperate to find people who speak Arab, Farsi or Chinese, and the same government knows that the pressure on immigrants to assimilate has led many to forget their languages.”