Ordering a pizza would probably be something I would have put on my “easy” list:  easy dinner option, easy kid-pleaser, easy to come by.  And then I visited Italy.  Don’t get me wrong, delicious pizza is extremely easy to find in Italy…if you know what you’re doing.  When facing a pizza menu sans pictures – written in Italian – with about a billion-and-a-half topping options, you are bound to lose something in translation.  Folks, let me just tell you that anchovies are not the worst thing that can happen to your pizza in Italy.  Carne di cavallo is something most Americans would not want ANYWHERE near their pizzas, especially the horse lovers out there.  Guess what else?  A “peperone” pizza will land you a nice, all bell pepper pizza.  But hey, I’d take bell peppers over horse meat any day of the week.

The truth is – close calls with culinary aside – my trip to Italy was absolutely phenomenal.  The people I encountered were extremely friendly and helpful, and the food wasn’t the only wonderful experience Italy had to offer.  Everywhere I went I was constantly surrounded by a beautiful, romantic language—which I couldn’t understand.  Of course, the magic wasn’t lost to me.  Italy, with all its majestic fountains, breathtaking artwork, and its graceful assimilation of modern and historical, well it’s captivating to say the least.  Wine is not necessary to become intoxicated; the culture alone is enough.  Still, missing out on the language and full understanding of the Italians was something I could not get out of my mind.

Sure, I could decode body language and facial expressions and communicate with the locals well enough to get by, but a part of me pined after the language.  I wanted to—and still want to—learn to speak Italian.  That’s when it dawned on me; by having the experience of making it through Italy with little-to-no language skills, I can relate to someone trying to make their way through life in the U.S. without English language skills.

Statistics show that “about 1,000,000 people legally immigrate to the U.S. annually.” Research done among immigrants revealed that “only 37% of immigrants say they already had a good command of English when they came to the U.S.  Among Mexican immigrants, the number drops to 7%.”  Additional research shows that nearly nine in ten immigrants feel that it is extremely important for immigrants to learn English.  “Seven in ten of those who came to this country knowing very little or no English at all say they’ve taken classes to improve their English…”(Source).

English language learning is a difficult task, but as the attitude of the general public and immigrants alike reflects, language and reading skills are invaluable.  "Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of immigrants overall say that it is more important for schools to teach immigrant children English as quickly as possible than it is to teach them other subjects in their native language” (Source).  “English is now the most widely learned second language in the world…over 700 million [people] speak English as a foreign language” (Source).

Because of my time spent in Italy, trials and adventures alike, I now understand why there are strong feelings about the need to learn to speak English if a person is going to live in the United States.  Our language is a part of our culture and history.  We are proud of our history and as a nation we want to preserve our language across future generations.  As our country truly becomes more of a wonderful melting pot and the number of culturally-diverse citizens grows, we feel this need to preserve our heritage by maintaining English as our primary language. On the flip side, ESL Children who immigrate here with their families should be given the opportunity to maintain their native language (and culture) while learning English, becoming balanced bilinguals.  Being bilingual is a very valuable skill to possess and it certainly doesn’t devalue the importance of the need to speak English.  If anything, bilingual U.S.citizens are something our country should recognize as a valuable symbol to the world that we care about other cultures and want to open more lines of international communication and cooperation.

Unfortunately, many schools do not give children the option to maintain their native language when they come to the United States.  Schools are often facing deadlines and trying to maintain standards (such as those set by No Child Left Behind) and so they turn their focus towards teaching kids to learn English as fast as possible using methods such as immersion.

Living in the United States without the ability to speak and read in English – just like living in Italy without the ability to speak Italian – would be a very difficult and frustrating experience both for the individual and for all the people that individual would need to communicate with.  I’m sure I frustrated more than a few waiters with my lack of communication skills in Italy, and I imagine that if I was living there instead of just visiting, it would have been insulting if I never made an effort to respect their lifestyle and learn to speak Italian.

Imagine what the families and children who move here struggle with as they try to learn English.  School-age children especially have to battle to keep up with their classes that are taught in English and have textbooks written in English.  Compared to schooling, ordering pizza is definitely not an important aspect of speaking English, and that is the biggest language-barrier experience I have to relate with.  I had always taken my language and reading skills for granted, but now I value them much more.  Pizza takes on a whole new meaning for me these days.

Anyone else with a story that involved a miscommunication should share in the comments section below!   Thoughts on the importance of reading and language skills are very welcome as well.

If you have a child who is an English Language learner, check out Reading Horizons explicit and sequential ESL phonics at home program.

"I tell everyone about the Reading Horizons program when I talk about reading. My students LOVE Reading Horizons, and I love using it!"

Dr. Neil Anderson, Former President of TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages)