TESTIFYING IN 1996 before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on bilingual ballot requirements, Boston University's president John Silber opened with an anecdote about his father, who had immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1903 to work as a sculptor at the St. Louis World's Fair. Looking for a job after the fair ended, Silber's father spotted a sign that said "Undertaker," which he assumed meant the same thing as Unternehmer, the German word for "contractor." So he walked in to apply for work," Silber told the committee, "and was surprised to find himself in a room full of coffins. Embarrassed, he concluded that it was time to learn English."
John Silber's father was one of tens of millions of immigrants over the years who made an effort to master English and thereby dramatically improve their odds of succeeding in America. My own father, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, was another. When he arrived in 1948, learning English was one of his first priorities. Three nights a week he attended English classes for adults, and on Sundays he and a group of fellow immigrants organized social outings during which they could practice their new language. My father got off the boat already knowing Slovak, Hungarian, Yiddish, and some German. But for the past 70 years, English has been his primary tongue — the language in which he raised a family, made a living, and participated in civic life.
What brings all this to mind is a story in Tuesday's Boston Globe about the impact of learning English on the income of immigrants.
"Learning English is arguably the most valuable skill immigrants can acquire after they arrive in the United States," my colleague Katie Johnston reported. "[A] first-of-its-kind study in Massachusetts reveals just how valuable that skill can be." Conducted by the Economic Mobility Corporation, the study covered 800 immigrants, a randomly chosen half of whom were offered government-subsidized English classes in 2016 and 2017. The findings were unambiguous: The annual income of immigrants who studied English was thousands of dollars higher than that of those who didn't, and their earnings grew at a faster rate. One of the study's co-authors pronounced the results "absolutely stunning." But really, what could be less stunning than data confirming that English language proficiency is critical to the success of immigrants to America? . . .