Mother tongues
Forcing immigrants to learn English can be counter-productive

Lev Golinkin left Soviet Ukraine as a nine-year-old in1990.With assistance from HIAS, a Jewish organisation that helps refugees, his family made its way to Indiana. In America, not having English felt “like having a massive stroke, only instead of being sent to the hospital and getting help you have to go out and get a job.” His experience suggests immigrants don’t have to be told how important it is to speak the language of a new country: they are more painfully aware of it than natives can ever know.
Yet they are often assumed to need coercion. On May16th, for example, Donald Trump vowed to ensure that immigrants to America learn English and pass a civics exam before arriving.
Such strictures might seem to serve national cohesion. In fact, the wrong policies and tone do the reverse, as Vicky Fouka of StanfordUniversity found in a study of German-Americans living a century ago. With its large Germanimmigrant population, Ohiowas the first of several states to permit teaching in German alongside English. By 1900 some 4% of elementary-school pupils in America were taught at least partly in German. After the first worldwar anti-German sentiment led to the end of those programmes and, in Ohio and Indiana, even to a ban on teaching German as a foreign language to young children.

Ms Fouka compared German-American populations in border counties of Ohio and Indiana with their neighbours in adjacent states (who experienced no language ban). She found that those affected by the ban were more likely to marry another German and give their children German names, and less likely to enlist during the second worldwar. Forced assimilation backfired at every level, from the personal to the political.

Unless the intentionwas not assimilation at all. Sometimes language laws are mostly symbolic. For instance, numerous American states have declared English to be their official tongue (at a federal level, the country doesn’t have one). This seems intended to send a message—“We speak English here”—without doing much to change reality on the ground. Sometimes, though, laws seem designed to make life as hard as possible for immigrants.
Take Proposition 227 of 1998, whereby Californian voters eliminated almost all of the state’s bilingual education programmes. Bilingual teachingwas always intended as a bridge to English, but in a polarising campaign itwas portrayed as allowing kids to avoid English altogether. (A few years earlier, another vote had stripped illegal immigrants of state benefits.) A later analysis provided scant evidence that Proposition 227 made much difference to English-learning. But the Republican-led anti-immigration backlash of the1990s led to a counter-backlash: California Latinos, though often religious and socially conservative, have been solidly Democratic since.
California’s conservatives were right to spot a rising cohort of foreign-born residents. They had two options: to try to make them patriotic Americans (and Republican voters) with a positive appeal, or to threaten them with punishments. Choosing the latter, they lost twice, in both language and politics. Californians overwhelmingly repealed Proposition 227 in 2016. The state is riotously multilingual, even as English remains the essential language, as it is in the rest of the country.

Just how permissive should receiving countries be? Corine Dehabey, a Syrian- American who helps immigrants learn English in today’s Ohio, thinks that, if policies are too accommodating, there is a risk that people don’t feel any pressure to acquire the language. But if she could make one change, it would be to give them more time to do so. Current policies push newcomers to find work as soon as possible. That leads to doctors and engineers driving taxis, because they have yet to requalify in America.
Adults often struggle to learn a new language, as Mr Golinkin’s mother did, going from being a psychiatrist in Ukraine to a security guard in America. Some pull it off, as Mr Golinkin’s father did by studying English for years before the move. But nearly all children master their adopted country’s language, as Mr Golinkin (now a writer) did quickly. Children are sponges for languages—and for attitudes, too. Their views of their new homes will forever be shaped by the way they are treated when they arrive.
Correction: Johnson’s previous column mistakenly said that “Tuesday” includes the Indo-European root dyeu twice. Dyeu produced the word for day in other languages, but English “day” is thought to be from dhegwh, “to burn”. Sorry.