The language ladder

13 years ago by in Uncategorized Tagged:

Immigrant workers struggle to learn English

Anita Shrestha works as a cashier at Embassy Autowash in McLean, Va. A small and energetic woman, Shrestha likes to entertain her customers with stories about her home, Bhimphedi, a small town in Nepal.

Shrestha came to the United States 18 years ago to study law. She believed America would provide the opportunities that were not available to her as a woman in Nepal.

After beginning her studies, however, Shrestha found she could not pass the English language test needed to get her degree. Nearly two decades later, Shrestha says her English is still not strong enough for her to rise above an entry-level job.

“If I came to learn more English, it would be much better. I would get better jobs. I would go to a better university,” Shrestha said. “Eighteen years I can’t go anywhere. All the time I have to work, work, work. That’s not the life.”

Shrestha’s story is not uncommon. For many immigrants, the language barrier makes it difficult to survive in the American workplace.

In May 2006, the U.S. Senate voted to include a provision in the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act that would make English the national language. While this decision has been controversial, people on all sides of the immigration debate agree on one thing: immigrants must learn English in order to advance in the American economy. Lawmakers may or may not declare English the national language, but when it comes to the business world, it already is.

An individual must be proficient in English to succeed in the American economy, according to Douglas Rivlin, director of communications for the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy group. He also said that immigrants who do not learn English have difficulty finding jobs beyond the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Rivlin said many immigrants come to the United States with professional skills, but language barriers force them to start at the bottom of the workforce.

“Many are sacrificing their own time and skills so that their children will have a better path than they did,” Rivlin said. Immigrants who cannot speak English often end up in such jobs as construction, home and office cleaning and restaurant work, Rivlin said.

Several Washington-area companies do not hire people who cannot speak English. Phone calls to about 10 job placement agencies revealed that their services are not available to those who do not speak English.

Ernest Jenkins, vice-president of human resources at the Washington-based Pepco, said that all Pepco employees must be proficient in English in order to communicate with customers. According to Jenkins, the work involves electricity and is simply too dangerous for an employee who cannot understand instructions. “Everybody has to be on one accord,” Jenkins said.

At the Wheaton Workers’ Center for day laborers, run by Casa de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy center that also offers language classes, immigrants sign a list each morning that places them in line for contracting jobs with local employers. The jobs are offered on a first-come first-serve basis.

Katherine Robinson-Munoz, a language teacher who works at the center, said the 10 or so laborers who can speak English get jobs over the 30 laborers who do not. “We go by the list, but the list is constantly bypassed by employers insisting on people that speak English,” Robinson-Munoz said.

“The only way of being successful in this country is learning the language,” said Zenada Mostofi, an immigrant from Ecuador. Mostofi works in government affairs at Pepco and credits her success to the language classes her uncle made her take when she came to America at age 17. “It was very important to learn English so I could work. I wanted to work and succeed.”

Tough barriers stand in the way of those who seek to learn the language. Classes are available through schools, religious organizations, and even some businesses, but many immigrants work three jobs and have trouble finding classes that work with their schedules, according to Rivlin. Classes can be difficult to afford for non-English speaking immigrants, whose average salaries are about $16,000 per year, according to the Educational Testing Service. Classroom space is also scarce. At Casa de Maryland, 400 students are enrolled in classes but another 200 remain on a waiting list, said Paul Zilly, an English teacher at the organization.

Mostofi said she knows immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for 30 years and do not speak English. “They live in their own little world,” she said. “I don’t think they are happy. It limits the person.”

For the students who are able to study English at Casa de Maryland, the classes provide hope. Julia, an immigrant from El Salvador whose last name was withheld due to her immigration status, came to the United States two years ago in order to feed and pay for the education of her four children. A muscular woman despite her small frame, Julia works in construction. English is “important to get a job, to be able to talk to people, even to buy a calling card,” she said.

Julia said she was turned down for housecleaning jobs because she could not read the labels on the cleaning products. “It is pretty hard to go up the ladder,” she said. “You stay in the same position you were in before.”

Julia’s limited ability to communicate has sometimes placed her in poor working conditions. Not a lot of women work in construction, and the bosses often try to take advantage of those who do, she said. She quit her last job after her boss asked her to go to a hotel with him.

“I’m used to that,” Julia said. “If you don’t learn to deal with those situations, you will not make it.”
Like many of the immigrants at Casa de Maryland, Julia has plans for a rewarding future. She would like to work in a jewelry store and bring her family to the United States.

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