I have been asked so many times why Hispanics don’t learn - or want to learn - English, that I just smile and jokingly answer back with, “¿Qué?, no comprendo inglés.” That means, “What, I don’t understand English?” Well, this gets their attention real fast - and hopefully yours.
It really is a good question. I would think the same thing if I were an English-speaking Anglo, born and raised in the United States. It certainly does appear, at least on the surface, that a great majority of Latinos could care less about learning English.
The truth of the matter, however, is that most Latinos who come to the United States do want to learn English. In this article I am going to tell you the three main reasons why they do not succeed.
Before I do this, I would like to cite some recent research done by the United Way in Salt Lake City regarding the immigrant population. They did a rather extensive survey of immigrants trying to determine what percentage of the immigrant population at one time or another had actually been enrolled in some type of English training course. Even I was surprised: A whopping 80 percent of all immigrants surveyed had been in some type of formal English training course!
So, rather than asking “Why don’t Hispanics want to learn English?” maybe the better questions is “Why don’t Hispanics learn English when they try?”
For now, trust me when I tell you that most Latinos really do want to learn English. I know this first-hand and not just through a survey done by the United Way. I have talked with thousands of Latinos, I have written a very popular English-training course, and I know that most Latinos do, in fact, want to learn English.
So, the question really is “Why don’t they learn?” There are three main reasons why many Latinos do not learn English, and we’ll explore them here.
Razón Uno: Poor Learning MethodsIt is very hard to learn a language if you are not learning in the right ways. Just as there is a right way and a wrong way to fly an airplane, there is a right way and a wrong way for an adult to learn a new language.
So, what are they doing wrong? One main flaw is that they are trying to learn a language they don’t know-English-through the same language they don’t know-English. This is called an immersion approach, and it is very, very frustrating for an adult learner. It may work for a small child, but they are totally immersed and don’t have 20, 30 or 40 years of existing language infrastructure in another language to overcome. By the way, last I checked it takes children a good three to four years to learn to speak even decently well. Most adults should be able to learn a new language very well in under 300 hours total learning activity. Most adults can become 85 percent to 90 percent proficient in a language (compared to a native speaker) in a year or less if they invest five to six hours a week in the process.
Another common mistake is going to group classes to try to learn English alongside of a bunch of other people who don’t know how to speak English. Many times you can even see Latinos practicing their English with, say, a Russian. Now, that’s just wonderful. Learning to speak a new language by practicing with another person who doesn’t speak the language well-this is like the Tower of Babel all over again! I could go on and on about improper learning methods, but you get the point.
In order to learn well you need to do the right things at the right time in the right ways. If you don’t, well, the airplane either doesn’t get off the ground or it crashes into the side of a mountain somewhere. For a lot of people, when the airplane crashes, it is hard to get back in the cockpit and try again.
Maybe we just need better English courses. Maybe the fault is primarily with the teachers who really do not know how to teach English well to Latinos. If you had any Spanish classes in high school, you may be able to relate to this. How many people come out of our American school systems speaking Spanish well after two to four years of Spanish classes? You get the point.
Razón Dos: Logistical RestraintsLet’s face the truth. A lot, if not most, Hispanics in this country are working long hours to support their families here and, many times, in another country. By the time many of them get home they are absolutely exhausted. They get up at 5 a.m. and might get home at 8 or 9 p.m. Many Latinos are working two jobs, sometimes for another employer or sometimes doing odd jobs on the side trying to build up their own little business. Either for you, for someone else or perhaps for themselves, they are working hard and working very long hours. This is fact. They might not tell you this, but reality is reality. There simply is no time (or energy) for them to get out of work, get showered up and go to an English class.
Razón Tres: No Critical NeedIf you hire and manage Latinos who speak primarily Spanish, you actually have a legal responsibility to communicate with them. You expose yourself to possible litigation if you cannot properly prepare, train or manage the people under your care. You have a critical pressing need to learn Spanish. I really believe this. You are the leader, you are the manager, you are the owner. You are responsible to communicate with the people you hire and lead. If you cannot meet the legal obligations of an employer with employees who cannot speak English, you simply should not hire them. If you do hire them, you have a critical need to learn to communicate with them.
People who speak Spanish, on the other hand, have all kinds of support systems in place that really do not require them to learn English. You may not want to hear this, but it is the truth. You can get by quite nicely in the United States not speaking English in most parts of the country.
There are Spanish language newspapers, radio stations, television stations, stores, physicians, attorneys, etc. You can go to any ATM machine and choose English or Spanish. You can call any major company in this country and get assistance in Spanish. I am not saying this is good or bad, just that it is. Even if this is not the reality one would have designed if in charge of the overall scheme of the development of culture and society, these are the facts.
So, for the Spanish-speaker in this country, there really is no critical need to learn English. The people who do learn or attempt to learn do so because they want to acculturate, they want to get ahead, they want to move forward. Thankfully, at least according to the United Way of Salt Lake City, 80 percent of all Latinos want to get ahead in this country by learning English. That’s some pretty outstanding news, if you ask me.
Let me wrap this column up this way. For the most part, Latinos do want to learn English. If you really want them to learn English I would like to send you a free special report titled “How Latinos Can and Should Learn English.” If you would like this complimentary report, send me an e-mail message at the address below, ask for the report by name and include your contact information. I think you will find it very interesting and very helpful for the Latino people you might like to help to either learn or perfect the English language. Also, if you want to get this report in Spanish to hand to your Latinos, just ask for that as well. We’ll send you both!