Post 5: Impact of English language skills on the day laborers’ lives?

This is the fifth entry in a series of eight blog entries about the work the Institute for Immigration Research is doing with the Centreville Labor Resource Center (CLRC) to develop an in-depth picture of immigrant day laborers in the United States. In the past four entries the services the day laborers are offered at the Centreville Labor Resource Center were examined. We also looked at the reasons why Guatemalan day laborers migrate to the US, the factors complicating the day laborers’ initial sentiment into American life and the jobs they carry out in Northern Virginia.

In April 2014, the Migration Policy Institute released an article describing there were 25 million Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals ages 5 and older in the United States, accounting for 8.5 percent of the 294 million people ages 5 and older. Spanish speakers accounted for 64 percent (16.1 million) of the total LEP population. An individual is defined as LEP when that person’s English abilities are reported as speaking English “not at all”, “not well” or “well”.  Most of the Centreville day laborers fall into the category of limited English proficiency, because when asked to assess their level of English proficiency, many rated their English between 0 and 5 on a scale of 0-10, with ten being the highest score.

Most of the interviewed day laborers explained they never anticipated living in America, whether on a temporary or permanent basis. Hence, acquiring English skills for many of the day laborers never seemed relevant before they found themselves in the United States for unexpected reasons, such as serious illness in their families or for other reasons described in Post 2. Another reason, according to the day laborers, is that English appears only to be offered in 12th grade in Guatemala and the English lessons are taught at a basic level such learning colors and single words. This means that only those day laborers fortunate enough to complete twelve years of schooling, had some exposure to the English language. As one day laborer replied when asked if he had learned English back home, “No, I didn’t have the chance to learn English. I worked as a doctor’s assistant or as some kind of male nurse in Guatemala, so I knew some medical terms in English when I got here. I didn’t learn English in school”. Another said, “I was offered some English classes the last six months of school, but we were taught numbers only. So, we were only taught how to count.”

In the interviews, the day laborers were asked if they have had any exposure to the English language through social media or TV. It turns out that most of the day laborers did not have access to a TV or computer in their homes, while access was limited at best in their schools: “We didn’t have a TV or computer at home and at school we only had one TV, so I had not heard English before from either TV or the internet.”

Guatemalan neighborhood, © David Amsler
Homes in a Guatemalan neighborhood, ©  David Amsler

The day laborers’ limited English abilities impacts their lives in terms psychological well-being, employability and integration into the wider American society. According to one day laborer, upon his arrival to the U.S., he lost his job as an electrical assistant due his limited English skills, which made him unable to follow the directions given to him. Another day laborer said, “The beginning was hard, because I didn’t understand or speak any English. I would work for ten hours a day washing dishes. Some days I would get paid $30 and some days I wouldn’t get paid at all and I was afraid.” However, this day laborer explained to us that his English has since improved over time along with his confidence.

The day laborers seem to acquire their English skills in different ways. Some attend English classes at the CLRC diligently while others expressed they are limited on time to take English classes due to job commitments. Some of the day laborers teach themselves English by looking up unknown words or through computer programs available at the CLRC.

Most of the day laborers saw improvement in English skills as a way to obtain better paying jobs for less physically demanding work: “Knowing English also helps you when you work in landscaping, because you can read the instructions and you can read the text on the bottles we use.”

Not only do English skills give the day laborers a better chance to function more effectively in their jobs, several expressed a noticable increase in their hourly pay. Jill Johnson, Senior Analyst at the Brookings Institute, relays similar sentiments, “Immigrants who are proficient in English earn more than those who are not, holding educational attainment constant.”

Jill's bar graph-jpeg
*Source: Jill Johnson’s, from the Brookings Institute, analysis of ACS 2012 PUMS; earnings are calculated for U.S. immigrants, who worked at least 35 hours per week and at least 50 weeks. 

In our research at the CLRC, educational attainment does not seem to have an impact on the day laborers’ interest in attending English lessons. It appears that several of the day laborers with a high school education prefer to learn English through interactions with employers and employees in their work places, whereas several of the day labors with only a couple of years of schooling are eager to attend English lessons. Another factor deterring some day laborers from learning English involves age. As one day laborer in his mid-fifties put it, “I hardly understand anything in English and I’m bad at reading in Spanish, too. I understand if I read slowly. I read very slowly in Spanish and I prefer not to read if I don’t have to.” Written English might come as a challenge for some day laborers, who are older, however, they still appear interested in learning to speak English regardless of how well they rated their English skills. Most of the day laborers we interviewed got by at least learning the technical terms related to their field of work.

As described above, it is very valuable for the day laborers to develop their English skills, but even with little English they seem to manage to find employment. Could it be that skills gained from vocational training helps the day laborers employability?  In Post 6 we will explore what kinds of training the day laborers can do in Centreville, Northern Virginia.


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