Saturday, December 01, 2007

Report: Future Generations Learn English

The immigration debate is contentious in this country today.

One of the things that has surprised me is the visceral reaction toward would-be Americans who have not learned English. I would be less surprised if more Americans spoke a second language. Thus, their argument has always struck me as a "do as I say and not as I do argument" if only for the fact that is very difficult for older people to learn a second language.

Having taken linguistics courses and having friends who are linguists, the data have always suggested that this is a moot point if one accounts for time. All existing data show that subsequent generations have no problem learning English, this trend continues, and the original native language is soon lost among future generations.

That is, without any policies or hate speech, the "hated" original language is lost on subsequent generations. With a widely spoken world language, such as Spanish, the language lives on elsewhere. The far more tragic case is when a language dies out and is lost when no native speakers remain (e.g., as is the case with several Native American languages).

New data from the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center and reported in the New York Times offers more data supporting this hypothesis.

Among the first generation in America, only 23% speak English well. However, that number rises to 88% among the second generation and 94% of the third generation.

Patience pays off. By the third generation, the native language has all but disappeared.

Communication is a basic part of the human experience. Although there surely are some immigrants who want a "Great Wall of China" exclusionary boundary around their native language, most yearn to communicate in their new land. This is exceedingly difficult for most older members of the first generation who never attempted to learn a second language as a young person.

But for subsequent generations, it seems almost automatic.

To me, this is not a political issue. It's simply a matter of looking at the data.

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Anonymous Sharon said...

Great information, and the data you cite definitely supports your conclusion!

Another piece of this puzzle, which should be considered when discussing immigrants who don’t speak English, is the dearth of public English-language programs available for immigrants. An article in the New York Times (2/27/07) reported that immigrants settling in suburban areas often were kept waiting months and even years to get into public English classes, due both to overcrowding and lack of texts. That article reported that both New Mexico and Massachusetts had wait lists with about 16, 000 names! And even in cities, the statistics consistently reveal demand for classes far exceeding supply.

Financing for public English language classes is split between state and federal governments, and state financing across the US is variable. A New York Immigration Coalition report, 1999, indicated that English language instruction to New York immigrants would increase tax revenues and reduce social spending, resulting in an 11.1 percent rate of return on the investment. The great news for NY is that Governor Spitzer has shown a strong commitment to providing that desperately needed funding for immigrant English language education. Now for other states to
follow suit.

10:38 PM  
Blogger Samuel D. Bradley said...

Thanks for the comment. I had not thought about this issue from the public financing standpoint.

It reminds me of the G.I. Bill after World War II -- the most profitable thing that this country has ever done.

11:22 AM  

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