Princeton Weekly Bulletin September 28, 1998

Immigrants prefer English


Professor of Sociology Alejandro Portes (photo: Susan R. Geller)

Study raises questions about how American schools approach teaching of language

By Mary Caffrey

From the debate on bilingual education in schools and state legislatures, and most recently in Congress, one might think that the current wave of immigrants in the United States is unwilling to learn English.

In fact, a study coauthored by Professor of Sociology Alejandro Portes found that immigrant children embrace English just as rapidly as those who came to this country at the turn of the century. Among today's newcomers, Italian and German have been replaced with Spanish or languages of the Pacific rim, but the pattern is the same: by the time they finish high school, children of immigrants prefer English to their native tongues and often lose the ability to write fluently in the language of their parents.

In a report from the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study, Portes and coauthor Ruben Rumbaut of Michigan State University summarized findings from a sample of 5,200 teenagers living in two areas of high immigrant concentration: San Diego, Calif., and Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The young people represented 77 nationalities and a socioeconomic spectrum, from the children of highly educated parents from China and India to those of desperately poor Haitians and Mexicans. Students were interviewed in the spring of 1992, when they were in the eighth or ninth grade, and in 199596, when they were seniors in high school.

Notable anomalies

The study found that teenagers whose parents are immigrants or who arrived in the United States as young children largely share the ambition, work ethic and belief in education associated with earlier waves of new comers. Portes and Rumbaut also found that children whose parents were well educated and who had intact families for the most part fared better than poorer children. For public policy makers, they write, the implications are significant, because children from these latter types of families are the fastest growing portion of the child population in the United States, accounting for 15 percent of all American children in 1990.

There were notable anomalies. Children of poor families from Southeast Asia exceeded expectations for their socioeconomic group, while teenagers of Cuban descent in South Florida had lower grades and higher dropout rates despite their ambition. Portes said these young Cuban Americans may benefit from an "ethnic enclave," a self-contained economy that provides opportunities to make a good salary and own a business even without a high school diploma. However, he noted, this represents a risky strategy for the future.

Language graveyard

The findings suggest that learning habits "will be no different than what has been the age-old pattern in American history," Portes and Rumbaut wrote in their study. "The grandchildren may learn a few foreign words and phrases as a quaint vestige of their ancestry, but they will most likely grow up speaking English only. It is for this reason that the United States has been called a 'language graveyard.'" Adds Portes, "It is a hard fact that it is the native language, not English, that is lost."

There is a "tacit understanding that true Americans are those whose speech is monolingual," Portes observed. "It's the 'social glue' argument." Because Americans have no common ethnic heritage, speaking English has helped define the culture. Ironically, he said, it is only after the native tongue is lost that learning a foreign language is considered the mark of an educated person.

While some American public schools are introducing foreign language instruction in the elementary school (this will be required in New Jersey), the historic norm has been to wait until students have reached high school, when acquisition of a new language is known to be more difficult. And teachers have been known to punish immigrant children for speaking their native language rather than English. Yet Portes and Rumbaut's study found that children who were fluent in both languages had better grades and lower dropout rates, confirming earlier research that linked bilingualism with cognitive development.

Most marketable skill

The findings raise important questions about the way American schools approach the teaching of language, not only to foreign born students who need to learn English but also to native English speakers. In a growing international economy that demands more bilingualism, immigrant children are not retaining what may be their most marketable skill. For example, South Florida teenagers seem to retain the ability to converse in Spanish but not the ability to conduct business transactions. Portes and Rumbaut quoted a local businesswoman who said, "We have 600,000 Hispanics here, and we cannot find qualified people to write a letter in Spanish."

Portes and Rumbaut's findings provide some relief to fears that new immigrants will form a multiethnic underclass cut off from the rest of American society by an inability to speak English. But Portes warns that some portion of the immigrant population will not fare well. "The main policy question," he said, "is 'What will determine success or failure?'"

Portes, who came to Princeton in September 1996 from Johns Hopkins University, will continue following the sample to answer this question and others. He has followed the impact of immigration in South Florida for many years, having coauthored the award winning book City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami (with A. Stepick, 1993).

Open question

Whether today's immigrants can achieve the American dream is very much an open question, according to Portes. Newcomers face an economy that differs from those of decades past that allowed the poor to climb the socioeconomic ladder. He noted that there is a huge gap today between lowpaying and highpaying jobs. As in the past, today's new arrivals take the jobs that no one else wants--gardeners, maids, nannies, janitors. Largely missing nowadays are the manufacturing jobs that pay good salaries even though they require relatively few skills.

And "there is no doubt that some of these kids will succumb to the effects of racism, poverty and the daily exposure to the models of the inner city: drugs, gangs and guns," Portes said. Before the second round of questioning in the study, "At least one of our respondents was killed, shot in a gang confrontation."