July 19th, 2018

“I don’t understand.”

“No entiendo.”

Anybody could have said those words. Unfortunately, they were spoken by the woman sitting across the table from me at Voces de la Frontera on Wednesday evening. Ma (I think that is short for Maria) was struggling with the questions that I asked her from the N-400, the application for U.S. citizenship. The problem wasn’t that she did not know the answers to my questions. The problem was with the fact that she cannot, at this time, hold a conversation in English.

Ma has not yet sent in her application to become a U.S. citizen. That might be a good thing. The application process is expensive and time-consuming. I told her, repeatedly, that she needs to work on her English comprehension before she applies for citizenship. I don’t want to discourage her from becoming a citizen. On the contrary, I want her to pass the test. From the time she submits her application until the time of her interview, Ma has about six months to get up to speed with her English language skills. It can be done.

I have some experience with learning new languages. Many years ago, back in 1983, I was dating my wife, Karin. I was living in West Germany at the time (courtesy of the U.S. Army). When I was dating Karin, I soon realized that nobody among her family or friends spoke English. Karin’s English was extremely limited (she had learned the British version of English in school, and that was almost useless). I was forced by circumstances to learn German, in a hurry. It was at times confusing and frustrating. However, I learned through immersion, and I still can speak German to this day.

Over the years, I have studied other languages: Latin, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew. I am currently fluent in none of them. However, I did learn that all of those languages have a certain logic to them. There are clear rules concerning pronunciation, spelling, and grammar. All languages have idiosyncrasies, and exceptions to the rules. These languages play by the rules most of the time.

Then there is English, a bastard child of a language with several unruly parents. English has its tangled roots in Gaelic, Latin, German, Danish, and French. None of these languages mix well. English speakers have tried to integrate the disparate elements of these other tongues, and the result has been confusing at best. English is a bitch to learn.

Ma is trying to learn English. She is handicapped in a way. Ma is a homemaker. She doesn’t get out much, and in her house, Spanish is generally spoken. From what I can tell, she does not like to be among people where nobody speaks Spanish. This is a problem. Ma needs to be in situations where she is required to speak English, just like I was forced into situations where I had to speak German. I know that Ma can learn English well enough to pass her test, but she has to get far enough out of her comfort zone to do that.

I have been working with people to help them to pass their citizenship test for a while now. I have concluded that the interviewers do not necessarily care that much about how the applicants answer specific questions. Do they really care if the applicant knows the three branches of the federal government? Probably not. The interviewers do care that the applicant can understand the English language. They care about that a lot. I have never met a person who failed the citizenship test because they did not know the answer to some esoteric question. I have met several who failed because they didn’t understand what was going on around them.

As I said before, Ma can pass her test. I am willing to work with her to do so.

She can do it if she goes out into the world.

That will be scary.


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