Why Some US Immigrants Don't Learn English

Why doesn't everybody living in the US try to learn English?

The short answer? It's complicated. For the explanation of what I mean by "complicated," read on.

It's a little-known fact that the official language of the US is not English. The United States has no official language. Even so, English is the dominant language and obviously the most useful language to learn if you want to live here.

However, we too often make this an issue of how lazy or ungrateful some people must be when, in most cases, nothing could be further from the truth.

Why wouldn't learning the dominant language

of the country where you live be your top priority?

It’s human nature everywhere to prioritize immediate needs over "wants." Other needs are really just "shoulds." The relatively few people living in the US who aren't choosing to learn English may not need it badly enough. But before we judge them, let’s think on this a little.

Everyone’s time is limited; we all have to have priorities.

So many immigrants to the US are very well prepared. They are investors coming to start businesses or educated professionals recruited by American corporations and other organizations who need their specialized skills. Most of these individuals already have a high command of the English language or even speak it fluently before immigrating.

Other immigrants come to the US for labor opportunities. They hope to trade their hard work for better lives for themselves and their families. They are aiming for more security in one or more forms. Some intend to eventually return to their home countries.

Most human beings with strong community support lack a strong need for outside relationships. In the US, most immigrants become part of already-established communities which meet their needs— including an established means for English interpretation if necessary. A few individuals will become bridges between their communities and the outer society. Even fewer will leave their communities behind in favor of totally assimilating.

Learning English may mean choosing to sacrifice

in situations where many other sacrifices are not optional.


More important to consider than anything else; however, is the time that it actually takes to learn any language well. Add that course to a plate that is already full. Working long hours, running the errands, doing chores at home, and making time for family and close friends is already a very tall order. If no part of this list requires much English, you can see why English would not be at the top. Free classes, if available, may not be a realistic option if not conveniently timed or located-- or if you simply don't have the necessary energy left.

If better English isn't absolutely necessary on the job, taking extra pains

to learn English may prove more costly than it’s actually worth.

For many, learning English also becomes an identity issue. Learning English well and then maintaining fluency means spending a lot of time outside of your community. No one becomes fluent in English by just taking classes on Tuesday and Thursday nights after a long day’s work. True fluency in any language must be acquired, not learned. Fluency is achieved only with a great degree of acculturation.

What About You?

Let's turn the tables for a minute. Americans' priorities are remarkably similar in like circumstances. Americans who go abroad to work may end up staying longer than they planned, even indefinitely, yet rarely strive to become fluent in the local language. Even signing a new multi-year deal may not mean finally taking intensive language classes. Ex-pat families hang out together and form self-sustaining communities who identify trustworthy individuals to be their bridges with local society. Sounds familiar, right? There's an echo in here.

Many will say, “Americans living abroad already speak

the world language [English], so that’s different.”

It's true that Americans who speak only English may get by very well with only English while living abroad. This fact, however, is not the only reason most Americans don't ever prioritize becoming fluent in the local language.

That's because this phenomenon is not tied only to the matter of in-groups versus out-groups. I'll give you a completely different example just to illustrate that human nature works this way in every category everywhere. But I'll pick on Americans simply because I am one.

Nobody Optimizes 100%

Most Americans aren't interested in learning how to follow the stock market, much less pick their own investments. They either leave that to others—or they don’t invest at all.

Many investors think such people are ignorant, lazy, and entitled. After all, they both allow AND expect others to handle their futures— when the relevant information and tools are in plain site and there is no language barrier. Most people love and want more money. Why doesn’t everybody learn how to invest their money so they can have even more?

There are many things everybody could do that would make their lives better. Many of these are free or don’t take much time. Why don’t we all do all of these things?

Why doesn’t everybody read as many books as time allows for free from their public libraries?

Why doesn’t everybody recycle where its readily available?

Why doesn't everybody learn CPR?

Why doesn’t everybody use coupons in the flyer at the entrance of the grocery store?

Why doesn’t every student who wants to go to college study hard enough to earn a full scholarship?

The reasons are the same as why not all immigrants in the US do everything they can to learn English as well and as soon as they could. We all have to meet our immediate needs first then maybe see to our wants and shoulds. For anyone, priorities always depend on a complex set of unique circumstances.

Dr. Angela Brumett is the owner-operator of Parlay Vacay: English Immersion Weekends.

Got a weekend? Relax. Level Up your English.

Contact Parlay Vacay to learn more.

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