Learn English If You Really Want to Be an American

A common saying among new immigrants is “Without English, you are mute, and without a car, you are lame.” So, if they know this, why don’t they get on with it? Why don’t they want to learn English?
For the past year and a half, I have watched a Cuban couple struggle to learn English. They have used all the technology available to them from Duolingo to audio CD programs to voice translation apps. They have attended English as a Second Language classes everywhere they are offered several times a week. They have tuned their TV to English channels with English subtitles. They have put themselves into English-only social situations. They haven’t shied away or been lazy. They can both write English beautifully and read well for comprehension, but it is still an everyday struggle for them to communicate in English. Pronunciation and listening comprehension are the most difficult tasks.
I ask you to think back on your education. Was your high school or college Spanish enough for you to hold a job in a foreign country, manage finances, navigate government offices? Even if you had known you would be working abroad, would you have been prepared?
This Cuban couple had the great benefit of arriving here with college degrees from their own country. They had not studied English at school, but Russian. He had also studied Greek and Hebrew. Many new immigrants arrive with barely an elementary school education from their own country. The Cuban couple had financial support which left them many free hours to study. Most new immigrants work very long hours most days of the week, leaving little time to study. After a 10-15-hour workday, would you want to sit down to study a foreign language?
The driver’s license and car dilemma has been another whole chapter of learning. In Cuba, there are almost no cars. The cars are almost all fifty years old or older. The tourist photos of the beautifully restored Chevy on the main drag of Havana is deceiving. Some of those cars exist, but if you open the hoods, the parts would most likely be unrecognizable and from many different countries and models.
Public transportation is the norm in many countries. Having your own car, knowing driving rules, and maintaining a license, license plate, and insurance are all very foreign concepts. If you had never driven, never ridden a bike, never played driving in a toy car, you would not realize that there are many skills in driving that are not intuitive. Steering is not something you were born knowing how to do. You learned it. My Cubans were in their sixties when they first steered a car, maintained a constant speed, put on a blinker, used a brake to slow and not just to stop. All of that while also watching oncoming traffic and traffic signs.
Then, the documentation required to even take the written test is so complicated, I’m not sure how anyone can get a license by himself. Besides learning the basic rules and signs, you need the following: a social security number, legal permission to be in the United States, two bills that prove Texas residence that are more than 30 days old but less than 90 but not a cellphone bill, and a certificate that you watched three videos about the dangers of texting and driving. These videos can only be watched on a desktop computer with steady internet or they will freeze in the middle and you will have to start completely over. My Cubans had the more difficult task of proving Texas residence because they had no bills in their name. Therefore, the office required two bills from me and a signed affidavit that the couple lived with us. But, all of our bills are automatic draft. I was able to find two for the required time period, but one was in my husband’s name, and they wouldn’t accept my Texas driver’s license as proof of my address. So, I ask again, could you navigate this process in a foreign language?
Yes, our immigrants need to learn English. Yes, our immigrants need to learn the laws and responsibilities of driving. All I’m asking from us home-grown Americans is that we have patience. If your server or clerk is struggling to understand you, slow down and repeat without getting louder and irritated. Maybe even ask where he is from, show an interest in his life. And don’t honk at the slow driver. He might be an immigrant on his maiden voyage trying to remember all those things at once that we so take for granted.
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love thy neighbor.

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