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By Ilana Strauss October 19, 2020

Foreign nationals pass English test to gain American citizenship

If Your Time is short

•  Foreigners seeking American citizenship must pass an English language test.

Tensions over immigration have been flaring during the presidential election. So it’s not surprising that old arguments on the subject are finding newfound attention.

"Current federal law says you must know English to become a citizen. So why are foreign language ballots even printed?" reads a popular Facebook post published in 2019 that is currently gaining traction. This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) 

Must foreign nationals learn English to become American citizens? For the most part, yes. People applying for citizenship must pass an English proficiency test. The test assesses "the applicant’s ability to read, write, speak and understand English," explains U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

This test requires applicants to use simple English vocabulary and grammar, "which may include noticeable errors in pronouncing, constructing, spelling, and understanding completely certain words, phrases, and sentences," U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services continues. 

That means applicants don’t need to exhibit native-like fluency, just proficiency.

"An applicant may ask for words to be repeated or rephrased and may make some errors in pronunciation, spelling, and grammar and still meet the English requirement for naturalization," says U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "An officer should repeat and rephrase questions until the officer is satisfied that the applicant either fully understands the question or is unable to understand English."

Applicants must also take a civics test, which is administered in English.

However, there are some exceptions to these requirements. For instance, applicants with medical disabilities may apply to be excused from these tests. People over the age of 50 who have resided legally in the U.S. for at least 20 years can opt to take the civics test in a different language.

The federal government currently requires some U.S. regions to print ballots in languages other than English. The regions have significant Asian American, Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native populations, explains the Pew Research Center.

So why are ballots printed in foreign languages? Many native-born U.S. citizens don’t speak English. Plenty of people born in the country grow up in foreign language households and don’t learn enough English to vote. 

"Citizens of language minorities have been effectively excluded from participation in the electoral process," explains the U.S. Justice Department. "Among other factors, the denial of the right to vote of such minority group citizens is ordinarily directly related to the unequal educational opportunities afforded them resulting in high illiteracy and low voting participation."

Our ruling

The Facebook post claims, "Current federal law says you must know English to become a citizen." With some exceptions, this is generally correct. Most foreign nationals must pass an English proficiency test to become U.S. citizens.

We rated this Facebook post Mostly True.

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Foreign nationals pass English test to gain American citizenship

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