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Taking English Seriously | City Journal


Jovita Mendez of Escondido, California became an American citizen in October. Ordinarily, this would be cause for celebration, as we welcome a new member of the American family. Mendez may struggle to fit in, though, because the native of Mexico still can’t speak English; in fact, she can’t read or write in any language.

Legislation passed by Congress in 1990 exempts certain individuals, based on age and length of residence in the United States, from the requirement that they speak, read, and write English before obtaining citizenship. Lawmakers put this exemption in place because so many immigrants were not acquiring even a rudimentary grasp of English (which is all that the citizenship test requires), even after decades of living in the U.S. The latest Census Bureau data show that the number of people speaking a foreign language at home reached 65.5 million last year—double the number in 1990 and triple that of 1980.

Between 2012 and 2014, the U.S. participated in the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which assesses literacy skills across the industrialized world. The PIAAC’s definition of literacy stipulates “understanding, evaluating, using, and engaging with written text to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” In the U.S., the tests were administered in English, and the sample (over 8,000 American adults) was large enough to analyze immigrant scores separately from those of native-born Americans. The results show a large and persistent English-literacy deficit among immigrants. Overall, immigrants score at just the 21st percentile of the distribution, and 41 percent of immigrants are “below basic”—a level sometimes described as functional illiteracy. Problems with English-language acquisition in the U.S. most often involve Hispanic immigrants, many of whom live in Spanish-speaking enclaves that slow assimilation. The average…

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