Sunday, February 18, 2007

English Already First in Immigrant Families, But to the Detriment of Bilingual Skills

The other day I quoted Pew 2005 stats that showed that Hispanic immigrant families learned English at such a quick pace that, by the 2nd generation in immigrant families, Spanish dominance had dropped to a mere fraction of what it was in the 1st (72% to 7%). By the 2nd generation in immigrant families, a whopping 93% were either bilingual or English dominant. 3rd generation numbers indicate a complete conversion to the English language.

According to various studies, immigrant families promote English internally, believing that it will create more opportunities for future generations. However, the 1st generation does not merely drag the 2nd and 3rd generations kicking and screaming to learn English. According to a 1998 study of 8th and 9th grade students in San Diego and Miami-Fort Lauderdale (cited by Lucy Tse in Why Don't They Learn English?, p. 31), two-thirds of 2nd generation immigrants favored using English over their parents' language. The causes of that preference include the powerful cultural and popular pulls of English, limited exposure to and less opportunities to learn the language of family heritage, parental and school misconceptions based on fear, and peer pressure.

So, without any government coercion, immigrant families push themselves to learn English. But there are also casualties that may be further harmed by local government mandating English. One of those casualties is bilingualism or the ability of 2nd and 3rd generations in immigrant families to utilize two languages at once. In the study of 8th and 9th graders, while researchers found that the students knew English well, they were progressively losing their bilingual skills. Among the Spanish-speaking students, fewer than half were fluent bilinguals.

The destruction of a bilingual skill set in the children of immigrants is a strike against their future professional and economic opportunities. In today's world, bilingualism is an asset that can translate to future success. Yet, there is no effort here in Nashville to encourage immigrant children to develop their bilingualism to open more doors for them in life.

In fact, Metro Council's English Only/First response signals knee jerk opposition to any Metro official who assists immigrants using both English and the language of heritage. Government mandates of English Only like Eric Crafton's are overkill: not only would they artificially force the language assimilation process that is already happening naturally in immigrant families, but they would further wreck the future opportunities for progress by the 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants that bilingualism creates.

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