“Why don’t they just learn English?”

With the election of Donald Trump as president-elect for the United States, there has been a clear increase in the anti-immigration sentiment of the populace. Those with very little empathy for limited English proficiency (LEP) individuals are renewing their use of the question, “Why don’t they just learn English?” It seems this is normally uttered by those who do not speak multiple languages. Yet, luckily, this round of, “Why don’t they just learn English?” has been reduced by globalization and the increase of people who have traveled to other countries.

This raises the question,  “If you haven’t learned a second language, how would you know how hard it is?” Replace the word “language” with any other subject and it highlights how profound the impact of this question is on millions of LEP individuals.  John Doe may never have learned a second language or how to play the guitar, yet he expects immigrants to possess more skills than he demands of himself.

Lack of experience and understanding don’t necessarily have to equal a lack of empathy. Let’s break down language learning and compare it to daily activities that a good portion of the population experiences.

First, learning a language is like learning or breaking a habit. Before you can make any change, you have to have a good reason, otherwise you are unlikely to stick to it. Think of how many times you may have tried to stop smoking or tried to incorporate being more active into your daily life. There are some pretty extreme reasons to quit smoking, and some great health benefits to being active, yet, it didn’t stick. Similarly, when learning the local language after moving to a new country, language learners have the pressing need to be able to communicate with the population of the area.

Maybe that reason doesn’t resonate enough, so here are some other great benefits to learning multiple languages:

Twitter logo to tweet translation access quoteTweet: According to a Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy, learning languages can LITERALLY make the brain grow. http://ctt.ec/Ht3B1+



  • Learning a language can improve your memory (for those who keep losing your keys);
  • Learning a language improves decision making skills (Can’t decide if you should keep reading? You should.).
  • Keeps mind sharper for longer (Can prevent the onset of dementia); and
  • Makes you more competitive in the workplace (Great stuff for those worried immigrants are stealing all the jobs).

The list is endless. So let’s imagine that we have convinced you that you should learn a language. You start to learn a language, you’re excited, and you can visualize yourself walking through an Italian market ordering fine wines and olive oil. Except only a few weeks in, you’ve totally forgotten about this goal, and life has moved on (or for empathy’s sake, you’re still smoking and paying for a gym membership you no longer use).

Why is it hard to stick with habit making and breaking, including language learning?

According to an article in Medical Daily, in order to change or create a habit, we need to actively create a “window of opportunity”. This includes actions such as moving, a job change, a new child, or something about your schedule that drastically changes in order to open a “window of opportunity”. Except that most of us don’t have big events like very often.

Also, according to Medical Daily, 42 percent of the time, we are not thinking about what we are doing. So it is incredibly hard to create that “window of opportunity” in ways other than drastic life events. This is even harder for illegal and legal immigrants, who work more hours per day on average than citizens native to the U.S. You can imagine that if you only spend 42 percent of that time actually thinking about what you’re doing, and you spend 10+ hours working every day, chances are your job takes precedent over ESL courses. Hell, I run a translation agency, and it is difficult to budget in time to maintain my Russian and Spanish, yet I clearly understand the impact of language learning.

Business Insider Australia indicates that another reason language learning is so hard is inherent in the programs that are available. They are often shaped for learning language similar to how babies and children “implicitly” learn their first language skills. But that’s not how adults learn languages, as we are rarely immersed in languages like babies. If you’re not immersed in languages all the time or, similarly, you’re not spending every spare second at the gym, it is hard to achieve the desired results. 

Another complaint of learning languages implicitly is that adults have a bias towards problem solving and using logic when faced with issues. Knowing the logic behind verb conjugations doesn’t mean you will always use the right tense when having a conversation. At some point, you just have to get out and speak. I experienced this while in service as an English teacher with the Peace Corps in Eastern Ukraine. The native teaching style was very authoritative and my students were used to being drilled in grammar and verb conjugations. Despite knowing grammar like the back of their hands, when challenged to speak, discuss, and debate various topics, everyone was terrified that their “logicing” of English would be incomprehensible when actually used. Just think about how annoying that friend is who is constantly correcting your grammar. “You understood me, right? So why does my grammar matter?” (My sister is kicking me in her head right now). When you’re surrounded by a logical method of learning, it is hard to engage with the language beyond the logic.

Behind this issue of learning languages implicitly is also the time factor we spoke of previously. Like we said, data shows that illegal and legal immigrants work more hours per day on average than citizens native to the U.S., and they are commonly surrounded by other immigrant workers. They aren’t being immersed in English all day, thus inhibiting implicit language learning.

As if we don’t have enough evidence that learning a language is more difficult than it appears, according to the Medical Daily, “What makes one language harder to learn than another is how experienced the learner is with transferring between linguistically complex structures”. In other words, knowing a Romance language and then learning another Romance language is much easier than learning a language of completely unrelated structure.

Personally, I have learned Spanish and Russian in my lifetime, and Russian is by far the harder language to learn. The words aren’t similar, the sentences are structured differently, and the words can be so damn long. I remember when I first started learning Russian, I was amazed that even proper names change depending on what you want to say. My husband, Conor, becomes Conorom for “with Conor”, or Conora when the action is directed at Conor. I went through entire conversations thinking we were talking about several different men and women with eerily similar names.

This feels like an obvious one, but a great note on which to end. When we point fingers at LEP individuals, and accusingly say, “Why don’t they just learn English?”, we are in a place of privilege to make so many assumptions about their lives: how long they have lived in the U.S., what their monetary status is like, the amount of spare time in their day, their mental state, their memory, their education level (and even ability to read in their own native languages!), the number of dependents they look after, and their priorities. Saying, “You shouldn’t be here because you don’t speak English” is akin to saying you shouldn’t be allowed in the hospital because you have lung disease from smoking or diabetes from lack of fitness. You are privileged enough to still go to the hospital and receive care, but immigrants are often not privileged enough to have access to services because of their lack of English language knowledge.

We believe there should be language access for all LEP individuals, despite what stage they are in life. Share this post with the hashtags #LanguageAccess #TinCanTranslations.

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