Language and Citizenship

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Most countries have an “official” language. Several have more than one. Government business and schools are conducted in the official language. Official documents are printed in the official language.

Knowledge of the country’s official language is usually one of the stated requirements for citizenship. For example, here are some language requirements I found in naturalization guidelines available on the web:

Be able to communicate in one of Canada’s official languages.

Provide proof of adequate knowledge of the French language.

Be able to speak German to ‘B1’ standard in the Common European Framework of Reference.

Prove knowledge of Spanish and Mexican history.

Be able to communicate in English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic to an acceptable degree.

Pass an English test

Just how stringently the language requirement is enforced varies from place to place. Knowledge of Japanese is not specifically mentioned in the guidelines I found on line, but because an applicant for citizenship must complete the process entirely in Japanese, it’s unlikely that anyone could achieve citizenship without considerable fluency in the language.

The UK has only recently required applicants for citizenship to provide proof they can speak the local language at the B1 level; the outcry against the stiffer requirements is still in progress. A speaker at the B1 level

  • can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
  • can deal with most situations likely to arise while traveling in an area where the language is spoken.
  • can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
  • can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

Under a new rule, Canada now requires something similar to the European B1: “applicants [for citizenship] must provide objective evidence that they meet the language requirement, achieving the Canadian Language Benchmark/Niveau de compétence linguistique canadien 4 speaking and listening, when they file their application.”

The United States government, on the other hand, is not only very generous in providing test waivers, but it doesn’t provide much of a test to those who can’t claim exemption. A new citizen commenting at the Business Week site describes his experience:

I prepared for three months for this exam. […] For the reading part of the exam, I was asked to read the following sentence: “Today is a sunny day.” For the writing part of the exam, I was asked to write the following words: “Today is a sunny day.” […] I was flat out insulted.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect immigrants who plan to spend the rest of their lives in a country to learn to speak the country’s language of government and education.

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10 thoughts on “Language and Citizenship”

  1. Well, the US doesn’t have an official language at all (and in some parts of the country, it’s prohibited to make English an official language without including Spanish also). We print our ballots in multiple languages, make news available in multiple languages… I live in a primarily-Latino neighborhood and the billboards and restaurant menus in my community are almost all bilingual, most people can’t get work in service unless they speak Spanish. One can live a very comfortable existence in the US and not speak very much English at all, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the US has the policies they do.

  2. Not only does it not seem unreasonable to expect immigrants who plan to spend the rest of their lives in a country to learn to speak the country’s language of government and education, it is vital for the strength and continued survival of a country that its citizens can communicate.

    Almost(?) all of the early 20th century immigrants learned to speak English despite being virtually segregated into ethnic neighborhoods.

    This reminds me of a scene from Modern Family:

    Jay: Keep that up, he’ll have to hit “numero dos” when he calls the DMV.

    Gloria: By the time he’s old enough to call, it will be “numero uno.”

  3. I know that anyone wanting to acquire the right to permanently reside in Thailand needs to demonstrate a knowledge of Thai. Similarly, in Bahrain a speaking knowledge of Arabic is required.

    A friend of mine, originally from West Virginia, wanted to obtain Bahraini citizenship. He went to an interview and spoke commendably in Arabic, but he was turned down. I think he just wasn’t taken very seriously because he wasn’t thought to be ethnically very Arab-like.

  4. But you see, requiring someone to speak more or better English than “today is a sunny day” might hurt their feelings, or offend them. We’ve been told for at least 20 years that it’s way more important to make people feel good about themselves than to actually teach them something. That’s why half the native English-speakers graduating from US schools today don’t know their own language.

    It’s sad and depressing, but it’s true.

  5. Your information about English language requirements for immigrants to the US is not complete or correct. Candidates are required to pass an exam in English about US government and history as well as an interview whose purpose is to discern the spoken level of English. The waivers are not especially generous and apply mostly to elderly or handicapped people.

    If the person you cited was surprised by the test, he apparently had not availed himself of the wide range of study materials available so he would have known what to expect. It’s true the test seems basic, but I teach English as a foreign language and know what a B1 level is. It’s actually not that high.

    In the bigger picture, it is worth noting that immigrants to the US today are learning English faster and better these days than in our ancestors did. Immigrants are actually learning English very well.

  6. The United States has never had an “official language.” It was xenophobic hysteria created by World War I propaganda that forced the “English standard” in public schools that became the predecessor of the modern “English First” (or “English Only” movement. Before then, public and private schools both often gave classes in the locally dominant language.

    True, English is the language of our colonial antecedents, and the most common language spoken here (followed by Spanish). But it is also true that, in some southwest parts of this country Spanish is still the first language of many of the natives. Go to any big city’s “China Town” or “Old Italy,” and you’ll see immigrants old and new who function with little or no English.

    This country’s diversity and its tolerance of individual and group differences, including language, are two of our greatest strengths. Our languages are powerful conveyances of culture, values, mores, and community. Natives and immigrants alike are free to speak the language of our birth – or of our choice.

    Don’t get me wrong. The ability to speak functional English in this country is a good idea. But making it a requirement for citizenship is no more than an infringement on personal liberty. Look. It’s also a good idea to eat healthy, but we certainly cherish the liberty to market popular foods based on fat, salt, and sugar. It’s a good idea to avoid toxins, but who would promote another Prohibition on alcohol?

    In general, we only limit our individual freedoms when the exercise of those freedoms harms or endangers those around us. For example, we are obligated to serve healthy foods where those served have no choice or control (children in schools). We limit our freedom to use alcohol when driving, or in public places, where we may endanger others.

    The real bottom line is not that new citizens MUST learn English, but that they WILL learn English anyway, enough to suit their needs, and their children WILL learn and use English, just as children absorb the language of their environment.

  7. There were mumblings about the language test for UK citizenship when we left six years ago. What annoyed us was that native English speakers – people from countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US – would also have to sit the test.

    However, Mel’s point above puts that in perspective. The UK government must have a similar opinion about the US education system (and perhaps others). Or it could be that they don’t want to offend or discriminate any racial minorities, so have the same rule for everyone.

  8. The ability to speak English is very low-bar minimum that should be required to get citizenship, or even permanent residency, in the US. The fact that so many can get by without English is a very big problem, not an irrelevancy and certainly not a strength. Nothing divides a country more than multiple languages. Nothing, not even religion. English should be enforced in the public square– privately people can do whatever they want to. Under NO circumstances should ballots be printed in foreign languages. That goes hand-in-hand with the citizenship issue. Most Americans have ancestors who came without speaking English. They learned. Good for them, good for us. Today’s immigrants are no special cases.

  9. To be able to speak English should be a requirement for U.S. citizenship just like other countries. Why do we have to cater to some group of immigrants to have different languages in our government forms? It’s all about votes and we are ruining our country. I thought we are called the United States and yet we are so divided. We should have a common language and English is our official language and not Spanish or Italian or German or whatever. You can speak the language of your old country at home but you have to learn how to speak English in public. Immigrants from the olden days came here with no knowledge of the English language but they learned. They learned to assimilate because they love the United States and proud to be an American. The new immigrants think we should all cater to them. I’m an immigrant and I speak English.

  10. I actually did my “senior” project on the topic of foreign language education, so although I’m certainly not an expert, I have looked into this issue.
    Language is one of the most significant barriers that can exist between people groups. Without knowledge of the same language, it is impossible to communicate about more than the simplest ideas–and I think we can all agree that politics and national issues are more than simple ideas.
    With the language barrier, there is instantly an “us and them” feeling created.
    We as a nation should not encourage this barrier, but seek to alleviate it by requiring that citizens must have a basic grasp of the English language–which is what most citizens speak. Also, it is not just Spanish-speakers who face this barrier (and, therefore, making the country bilingual will not resolve the issue–nor the us and them conflict). In parts of the Dakotas, there are still many who do not speak English, but rather German. Along the Canadian border, it is not uncommon to meet French speakers.
    However, we should not leave these people without help. Rather, citizens should work to implement courses for foreign language speakers in their communities. Not only will this resolve the language barrier and enhance opportunities for those who now have (at least) a competent grasp of the English language, but it will help to build community between different people groups.

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