Only a handful of countries across the globe do not have an official language, and the discussion has been heating up about whether the United States should be taken off of that list. This national issue calls attention to the large number of non-English speakers in the local community, as well as how well international students are integrated into Drake University’s predominantly English-speaking campus.
Top contenders for the Republican GOP nomination, including Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, have recently voiced support for legislation that would name English the official language of the United States. This law, if enacted, would set the precedent that immigrants must pass an English fluency test before receiving citizenship. Iowa and 30 other states have already passed legislation naming English their official state language, though implications vary. Opposition to the official English proposal involves fear that this legislation would discriminate against non-English speakers and hinder First Amendment protections of free speech.
Drake University enrolls more than 350 international students, mainly from Malaysia and China. The university requires English proficiency for admission and determines an applicant’s capacity to use and understand English at a university level through the standardized Test of English as a Foreign Language, a tool accepted by over 8,000 colleges in over 130 countries.
Carlyn Marron, the assistant director of international programs at Drake, works closely with international students and manages many of their legal files and day-to-day needs. She said the university is well-equipped with services for international students, including personal student mentors specialized in international studies, airport pickups and a special orientation to smooth the transition and to provide community building, just to name a few.
“We answer questions for the students such as ‘How do I get a cell phone?’ or ‘How do I open a bank account?’” said Marron. “All the kinds of things we (Americans) take for granted.”
Marron said it is fair to require English proficiency, considering that all of the university’s courses are taught in English, with the exception of foreign language courses. She disagreed with the motives of the official English proposition, however, saying that a national fluency test would be discriminatory.
“It is unfair to ask somebody to do something they cannot do,” said Marron. “It’s like telling someone in a wheelchair that to be a citizen, they have to be able to walk.”
Marron, who has studied Spanish and Chinese, explained that language is naturally absorbed at an early age, but extremely difficult to learn once the brain reaches a midlife threshold.
“(Official English supporters) have no idea what kind of a burden they are putting on to these people,” she said.
First-year Harsh Mota has experienced English integration first-hand. Mota, who grew up in India before moving to Kenya and eventually to Des Moines for Drake’s actuarial science program, is fluent in the languages of Gujarati, Kutchi and Hindi. He communicates efficiently in English, but several of his international friends have had difficulty transitioning to an English-speaking environment. Unlike Marron, he supported the official English proposal.
“I do have friends (at Drake) who do not communicate that well in English,” said Mota. “I feel that if they want to have a good, globalized future, English needs to be their strength. English needs to be in their veins.”