Why the White House’s John Kelly fails English and history with his views on immigrants

Domenico Maceri says contrary to the opinions of US President Donald Trump and his chief of staff, America’s decline will begin when newcomers stop flocking to the country

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2018, 1:26pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2018, 1:42pm

“They don't speak English … They don't integrate well.” This is how John Kelly, Donald Trump's chief of staff, described his reasons for the need to block Mexican immigrants from coming into the United States. Kelly's great-grandparents came from Ireland but on his mother's side they hailed from Avellino, Italy. Little is known about their linguistic abilities, yet some research reveals that his great-grandmother knew no English after 30 years of living in the US. 

Kelly's great-grandmother’s linguistic experience is not an anomaly. My parents, now deceased, learned very little English in 40 years of living in America. 

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Why don't people learn English? After all, isn't it as easy as one, two, three?

In reality, learning a language may be easy for some people but a number of obstacles may make it difficult if not impossible for others. The first one is age. Although immigrant children learn English like natives, as “Dreamers (undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children) have done, those who come as adults will learn enough to get by. Some may never learn English because of low educational background and weak knowledge of their own language.

It might take twice as long for an immigrant from China to learn English compared to one from France

It's very difficult to learn a new language if you don't know your own very well. My parents, and quite likely Kelly's great-grandmother, faced the challenges of age as well as limited education. 

The immigrants' native language may make it easier or more difficult to learn English. Speakers of European languages with a high degree of education in their own language usually learn English well. Yet, if they came to the US as adults, they will always retain a foreign accent. Arnold SchwarzeneggerArianna HuffingtonHenry Kissinger and Melania Trump will take their accents to their graves, since English pronunciation is very challenging. 

Educated immigrants speaking a non-European language will also learn English but will have a hard time. It might take twice as long for an immigrant from China to learn English compared to one from France. While English and Chinese have little in common, French and English share a number of linguistic features, which simplify learning the new language. 

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Typically, gender also affects one's learning ability. Immigrant women, who have a tendency to stay at home and care for children, are less likely to learn than men who go to work and inevitably have more interactions with other Americans. 

Anyone who thinks learning a language is easy should talk to Americans who have lived overseas for many years

One challenge shared by virtually all immigrants in learning English is time. Immigrants come to the US primarily for economic reasons. Thus, they work long hours. It's difficult to attend night classes after having worked hard the entire day, although many in fact do it. 

Anyone who thinks learning a language is easy should talk to Americans who have lived overseas for many years. Most of them learn little or no foreign language. Just like it is difficult for Americans to learn other languages, it is also difficult for immigrants to learn English, in part because of the particular intricacies of the language. Ultimately, though, immigrants learn enough English to make it in America, providing the necessary base for their children and grandchildren to integrate fully and live the American dream. 

Kelly's ancestors, knowing English or not, integrated into American society, enabling him to reach the highest leadership positions. Yet his lack of knowledge in some subjects and our own history makes you wonder about his judgment in dealing with immigration issues. We know very well about Donald Trump's attacks on immigrants, labelling some as coming from “s***hole countries” and others as “animals”.

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Kelly is much less strident and there were reports, denied by Kelly, that he has given his boss a very low grade, labelling him “an idiot” for not understanding how the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) programme works. Sadly, Kelly does not do that much better. His comments about immigrants not speaking English and therefore being unable to integrate are not as extreme as his boss’s characterisations of immigrants, but he still gets a failing grade. 

Both Trump and Kelly's views on immigration reflect not just a misunderstanding of history but also include a rejection of America, a land of immigrants. Trump and Kelly will eventually be gone, becoming only an unfortunate footnote in American history. America will survive them and continue to grow, thanks to the steady contributions of newcomers. When immigrants stop coming in, America's decline will have begun. 

Domenico Maceri, PhD, is emeritus professor of romance languages at Allan Hancock College, Santa Maria, California. He has won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications