Today, more immigrants are coming to America than ever before. In order for these new arrivals to take full advantage of economic and cultural opportunities in the United States, competence in spoken and written English is almost essential. But recent studies indicate that the demand for English language training exceeds the supply. That's limiting many newcomers' ability to enter the American cultural and economic mainstream.
"English is really essential," says Phyllis Berman, the founder and director of the Riverside Language Program in New York City. "If immigrants don't learn English, they are not going to make a living."
They are also going to be distanced from their children Berman says, "as their kids begin to function in this country and in this language." Simply put, she says, learning English "is the key for them, and for the life they want."
That is why immigration experts are troubled by the serious shortage of English classes throughout the United States right now, even as immigration numbers, and the American economy are growing. According to a study by the Center for an Urban Future, a non-profit group that researches workforce and economic development issues in New York State, only five percent of immigrants with limited English skills are in a formal course to improve them. And across the nation, tens of thousands are on waiting lists to get into an English class.
Experts say one reason for this language training gap is a general slowdown in government funding for immigrant services, such as health care and job training. Tara Colton, a researcher at the Center for an Urban Future, says that's a mistake. She sees English training for immigrants "not only as an investment in the worker, but also as an investment in the economy."
Colton explains that in today's computer-basted information economy, workers without English, "can't move up beyond an entry-level position [because] they can't access the data base on the computer, they can't learn the safety guidelines they need, (and) they can't communicate with their employees, [so] they can't take a managerial position."
Indeed, today's global economy often requires even small businesses to interface with outside companies. "So it's hard to move beyond an entry-level position without at least some English ability," says Colton.
In the past, most English language classes were taught by volunteers or native speakers without significant training in language instruction. But today, the field has also become more technical and therefore more expensive. This has placed the cost of learning English at private institutes beyond the economic reach of many immigrants.
There are hopeful counter-trends. Some businesses are forging partnerships with government agencies and community groups. Other companies pay employees regular wages for time spent in English class if the government will provide instructors and class materials.
On the legislative front, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has proposed a bill that would give legal immigrants $500 vouchers for English classes and a fast track to citizenship if they attain fluency in their adopted tongue.
Researcher Tara Colton of the Center for an Urban Future supports such efforts. "The reality is immigrants have made this country what it is and they are going to continue to do so, and they need to have the support that they deserve and that we all benefit from."