On Monday, the Lino Lakes City Council delayed a debate and vote on a resolution declaring English as the city's official language, putting off the issue until at least July 26. Council Member Dave Roeser has said he proposed the idea to save money on such things as translating signs and using interpreters to assist residents who don't speak fluent English.

Roeser has denied the resolution is an appeal to anti-immigrant sentiments. But when asked by a reporter how much, if anything, Lino Lakes spends on translating, he said he had no idea. It's to prevent future costs should immigrants ever want to move to Lino Lakes, which is 92 percent white, he said.

Even if the measure doesn't pass, I'd say Roeser has pretty much already done his job. His proposal is a cynical and disingenuous way of saying that immigrants, legal or not, are unwelcome in his town.

As someone who continues to mangle a second language in order to travel to Spanish-speaking countries, I agree with Roeser that people who visit or move to another place should try to learn the language. What bothers me is the widely held notion that most immigrants here refuse to learn English, or that they should speak fluently when they land here after fleeing, say, repression in Myanmar.

That's why I wish Roeser could have been with me Tuesday morning on E. Lake Street, in a warren of rooms above a Denny's Restaurant, as people crammed into classrooms run by the Minnesota Literacy Council (MLC). The council wants immigrants to speak English, too, but it doesn't think that simply making life difficult for them is the way to accomplish it.

The students, from teens to elderly adults, ranged from new refugees struggling with "What's your name?" to intermediate speakers who were discussing the U.S. Constitution (in thoughtful ways that would embarrass many natives) to advanced students looking to improve their jobs.

They came from Africa, Mexico and Haiti. For many of them, this was at least their third language. One young African man spoke five languages.

Want to talk about motivation to learn English? Two of the students are blind and do their schoolwork in Braille.

Roman Varashkevich from Belarus spends three hours a day, four times a week, in English class. Afterward, he will go to his job at a liquor store, or his other job at a country club.

"I think it is kind of an emergency for me to learn English," he said.

"You need to learn it so you can do things for yourself and not just have to ask for help. There is no other way."

Cathy Grady, MLC's adult program director, said they teach 2,500 people per year to speak English, and there are often waiting lists for classes. Statewide, there are far more people wanting to learn English than there are classes available, she said. The hours put in by ESL teachers is up more than 8 percent this year.

"We have students who desperately want to learn," said Grady. "They often have jobs, kids and families, and work around their schedules to get here." One Mexican woman, lacking a baby sitter, brought her daughter, who colored silently beside her.

The tack taken by cities such as Lino Lakes "is really misguided," said Grady.

Kim Feller, director of the Minnesota Resource Center across town, agrees. "There is a huge misconception that immigrants don't want to learn the language," she said. "English is one of the hardest languages, but they want to be productive citizens."

RESOURCE has several programs to help new Americans meld into society, but a program that taught accent-reduction had to be dropped because of budget issues.

Back in the intermediate class on Lake Street, three of the Africans are discussing how to "participate in community life." Only English is allowed.

Next door, some of the students in the beginner class have "never been to school before, never held a pencil," said Abby Roza, Learning Center manager.

There is controlled chaos, and a giddy sense of energy, as they learn one another's names and how to greet strangers.

MLC staffers run some of the classes, but the agency also relies heavily on volunteers, which are always in short supply.

I asked Roza if members of the Lino Lakes City Council might better promote the English language and ensure future budget savings by volunteering to teach at one of the centers.

"Absolutely," said Roza. "Everybody is welcome."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702