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The looks on my uncle’s and his customer’s faces clearly suggested they were talking about me while I was standing next to them. I had no idea what they were saying. Nothing bad I am sure, but although I was 16, I felt powerless as a baby might feel as she tries to reach for an object and the hand does not go where it’s supposed to. I had been in the United States only a few days and knew almost no English. How I wished I knew what they were saying.

No one needed to tell me I should learn English or should be encouraged to do so. Yet, Mario Mujica, chairman of the Washington-based U.S. English organization, believes immigrants need the encouragement of laws to learn the language of the country. Reacting to a decision by a Utah judge, which upheld the constitutionality of the state’s English-only law, Mujica expressed his hope that immigrants will be encouraged to “learn English” and thus “achieve the American dream.”

I never met an immigrant in the U.S. who needed laws to be reminded that English is necessary to succeed in this country. Somehow U.S. English believes that by encouraging and sometimes sponsoring states to pass laws declaring English the official language, people will see the light and learn it.

History tells us that people will learn whatever language is necessary to succeed. When Roman soldiers arrived in Spain more than 2,000 years ago, the local people began learning Latin because they saw in it something of value. Eventually the Latin spoken by Roman soldiers, merchants and bureaucrats evolved and became what we now know as Spanish. The same thing happened in France and other countries such as Portugal and Romania where Latin supplanted the local languages.

Sometimes people will give up one language for another because they will gain in the process. The Irish, who see themselves having been dominated and abused by the English for several centuries, would have loved to get rid of the oppressors’ language — the language of “traitors and spies.” Yet, when the country became independent in the early 20th century, English was maintained. The attempt to revive Gaelic and turn it into the national language pretty much failed, although it is still being used in some parts of the country. English became the de facto language of Ireland because the people saw advantages in it that Gaelic lacked.

Immigrants to the U.S. want to learn English because they recognize the advantages only too well. Not knowing English means bringing an interpreter to the doctor’s office. It means not being able to ask for a painkiller after surgery as it did to a lady from Mexico sharing my wife’s hospital room, both having had babies through a C-section.

Did the lady wish she knew English? You bet. Why didn’t she know the language? Learning a new language is not easy. Just ask any of my college students who struggle with Spanish, French or Italian. It takes time and effort.

Although immigrants’ desire and need to learn English are certainly strong, a number of factors influence their ability to become proficient. The first one is age. Immigrants who come to the U.S. as babies eventually learn English as well as native-born Americans. Those who come as adults will learn enough to get by, although they will always have a foreign accent. Some may never learn the language because of low educational background in their own language, because they are too busy earning a living or some other reason.

Gender also affects one’s learning ability. Immigrant women, who have a tendency to stay home and care for kids, are less likely to learn than men who go to work and are forced to have some interaction with Americans. Anyone who thinks learning a language is easy should talk with Americans who have lived overseas for many years. Most of them learn little or no foreign language.

Spanish-speaking immigrants have in some ways less of a need to learn English than those from other countries because Spanish is such an important language in the U.S. Radio, TV and newspapers are not readily available in Bulgarian, but in Spanish they are. Indeed it’s possible to live in the U.S. with just Spanish. However, it’s impossible be very successful in the U.S. without knowing English and venturing into the English-speaking world. You cannot become a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer, without English. English is the key to success.

Spanish-speaking immigrants want to learn English and get an education because they understand better than most Americans that without doing so, they will be condemned to a life of menial work. For proof of this all one has to do is look at the large number of people attending night classes to learn English and consider the high number of commercials on Spanish TV peddling tapes and videos promising to teach English the easy way. Immigrants don’t need laws to tell them they need to learn English.

So the efforts made by 26 states to pass laws declaring English their official language have been a waste of time at best. At worst they have created problems, reducing opportunities for immigrants. In Alabama, for example, Martha Sandoval, a Mexican resident, was able to take her driver’s test in Spanish only after she sued the state and won in both local and federal courts because driver’s license tests in languages other than English had been stopped by the state’s English-only law.

The potential for more damage exists as the average person misinterprets the law. Some believe that declaring English the official language means that kids cannot speak Spanish or other languages on the playground. In one extreme case, it appears that a teacher told two Latino students he would kick them out of school if they could not prove they were citizens.

No one needs to tell immigrants to the U.S. that they need to learn English. Americans should, however, be told they should learn another language to be able to better compete in the global market. But that’s another article.

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