Saturday, September 29, 2007

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released its new naturalization test this week, and it is a modest improvement. Previously, applicants answered questions such as, “What are the colors of our flag?” or “What were the original 13 states?” Starting next October, they will still need to answer such questions but they will also need to dig deeper into the ideas and concepts of American democracy.

“What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?” one question asks. “Why did the colonists fight the British?” asks another. These thesis-worthy questions, which are open-ended, complement memory-amenable ones like “What group has the power to declare war?” There are also questions that we’d bet many Americans couldn’t answer, like naming one of the authors of the Federalist Papers. This is welcome and good.

We deem it a “modest” improvement, however, because the English-proficiency standards of the naturalization process remain poor. They were left untouched in this year’s reform. We still need a frank recognition of the value of English to both immigrants personally and to the political and social health of the United States generally. An improvement in the civics component of the process — thankfully, it must be taken in English by most applicants — is only one of several necessary elements. Language — the English language — is key. The present language-proficiency test consists of a few verbal responses to simple questions and a very short reading-comprehension exercise. That’s not enough.

There is no better tool with which to equip immigrants to the United States than English. English-language proficiency remains the most practical and indispensable skill for newcomers, and it is the government’s best tool to promote social harmony and cohesion. There is a hesitancy to make English our official language, or to push other pro-English measures, for fear of offending cultures and traditions. This fear is unwarranted; bilingualism, when one of those languages is English, is a good thing.

By all means, let us applaud the improved civics lessons of the naturalization process. But better English testing would help everyone immensely, including immigrants.

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