Can you speak more than one language? According to the Puerto Rico Report, only about 26% of Americans can. It’s our own loss that that percentage isn’t higher, because there are so many advantages to being bilingual. Researchers in the UK, for example, discovered that speaking two languages increases one’s attention span as well as the ability to switch tasks. We also know that it can improve your ability to communicate with neighbors and friends, open up new employment opportunities, make traveling abroad much easier, and more.
Most farmworkers in the U.S. are immigrants, and arrive here already speaking more than one language. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), only 25% of farmworkers were born in the U.S. while nearly 70% were born in Mexico, 6% were born in Central America, and a small percentage come from places like South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and the Pacific Islands.
Learning English as a newly-arrived immigrant to the United States is not usually the first priority. Rather, finding a job and earning money is. Some farmworkers are able to find work on crews in the U.S. where their first language is spoken fluently, so English can seem optional – especially when they simply don’t have the time.
But for those who can make the time, learning English has its benefits. For immigrant children, it can smooth the transition to their new school and improve their performance. (Discrimination against English language learners in an educational setting, however, should not be tolerated. According to the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, children identified as English learners must be provided with language assistance services, and “schools must communicate information to limited English proficient parents in a language they can understand.”)
For farmworker adults, limited English proficiency could potentially limit their personal and professional opportunities, while leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and inhibiting communication with key stakeholders, i.e., employers, teachers, first responders. Everyday tasks like banking, shopping, and commuting can become ordeals. Unfortunately, many immigrants are discriminated against for speaking Spanish or any language in public besides English, or even just for having an accent. If this happens in the workplace, it is considered language discrimination and, according to Legal Aid at Work, could be prohibited by federal and California law.
On the plus side, learning English could qualify farmworkers for new jobs and better pay. For example, pesticide handlers must be able to understand the instructions included with each pesticide, which, at this time, are only required to be written in English. Once a farmworker attains English proficiency, he/she could apply for this as well as other jobs that require at least some knowledge of English.
Fortunately, many farmworker organizations offer free or low-cost English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and there are countless low-cost and free English language training resources available online as well:
- ESL classes – many migrant education centers offer them at very low cost or for free, as do many AFOP members. Check with the AFOP member in your state: https://afop.org/members/. (It’s possible that these classes are currently suspended due to COVID-19.)
- Online instruction – many nonprofit organizations, local universities, etc. may offer online instruction at little to no cost to the student. USALearns offers free online classes underwritten by the Sacramento County Office of Education. com provides a list of resources, including World English that provides free speaking lessons and chat software for practicing conversational English.
- Online videos – YouTube series like ‘Learn English with Ronnie’, ‘Elemental English’ and ‘Everyday Learning English’ offer in-depth tutorials for free.
- Audiobooks – If farmworkers are auditory learners, they could start out by listening to children’s books on tape. This option might be best for farmworkers who have a long commute to their jobsite.
- Books – If you’re old school and enjoy learning from books, com has a lot of second-hand ESL materials to offer, many of which ship for free.
The flip side of this is that there is a growing need for Americans to learn Spanish or another foreign language, particularly for people and organizations who serve farmworkers. According to NAWS, 77% of farmworkers speak Spanish as their primary language, while 30% could not speak English “at all.”
The most effective farmworker advocates are those who are able to communicate with farmworkers in their native tongue. Depending on one’s location, that language could be Haitian-Creole, Spanish, Tagalog, Triqui, Mixteco, Kanjobal, or any number of indigenous languages and dialects. Farmworker organizations who hire native/proficient speakers of those languages – ideally from within the farmworker communities they serve – are able to increase their relevance, accessibility, and impact in those communities.
Since we are a national organization and Spanish is by far the most common first language of farmworkers, AFOP Health & Safety has made it our practice to publish regular bi-lingual social media posts. All of our official training materials have always been in both Spanish and English, and some of them are in Burmese, Haitian-Creole, and Mixteco. Since some farmworkers leave school at a young age and cannot read or write, we also make sure all of our curricula are low-literate. We will maintain these practices so that all stakeholders are able to understand the information we provide.
In short, learning a new language is not easy and it can be hard to find the time, particularly for farmworkers who work around the clock. But the benefits far outweigh the costs, especially when so many resources can be found these days for free. Most importantly, learning a new language can be a lot of fun. It opens up new doors of opportunity, expands your mind, and can oftentimes reveal a whole new world.