What it Takes for Adult Immigrants to Learn English

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Aug 10 02:46:32 UTC 2007

Learning the Language

Mary Ann Zehr is an assistant editor at Education Week. She has
written about the schooling of English-language learners for more than
seven years and understands through her own experience of studying
Spanish that it takes a long time to learn another language well. Her
blog will tackle difficult policy questions, explore learning
innovations, and share stories about different cultural groups on her
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What it Takes for Adult Immigrants to Learn English

I teach English as a second language to three immigrant women one
night a week as a volunteer for the Literacy Council of Montgomery
County, in Maryland, so I have a personal interest in the recent
findings by researchers from the Migration Policy Institute on adult
English-language instruction.

I figure that some of you may have an interest as well because the
researchers are talking about the parents of many of the children whom
you serve.

The 24-page study, "Adult English Language Instruction in the United
States: Determining Need and Investing Wisely," spells out how much
money it would cost and how many hours it would take for adult
immigrants to learn enough English to pass the U.S. naturalization
test or begin postsecondary education.

The researchers conclude it would cost federal, state, and local
governments $200 million more per year than the current $1 billion per
year they are now spending to provide English classes for immigrants
who are legal permanent residents. The funding would have to be
sustained for six years, which is about the amount of time the
researchers estimate it would take immigrants to become fluent in the
language. If undocumented immigrants are added to the mix of people
taking English classes, the researchers say that $2.9 billion in new
funds would be needed on top of the $200 million each year for six
years. The costs are adjusted to take into consideration the fact that
some immigrants are already on the path to fluency and not everyone
needs six more years of study.

The Brazilian woman and two Korean women whom I teach have each
attended or graduated from college in their home countries, yet it has
been a slow process for them to become fluent in English. In the two
years I've been teaching them, the students and I celebrate each
accomplishment that shows they are improving their English skills and
becoming more integrated into American society. One woman realizes
that she can understand the story being read when she takes her
children to a local bookstore for story time. We congratulate her.
Another woman finds that she can be helpful in serving as an
interpreter for a Korean family to register their children for school.
We applaud her. Finally, one student passes the written exam to become
a U.S. postal carrier, which she had failed the previous year. We are

Let me add that the English tutoring I provide through the literacy
council is free--and there are 300 people on a waiting list to get
tutors. Many of those people work in low-paying jobs, such as making
sandwiches in delis or cleaning houses, and cannot afford to pay for
English classes.

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