What it Takes for Adult Immigrants to Learn English

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 09, 2007 2 min read
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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 elated.

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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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.