Dreaming in English?

By Donna R. Gabaccia, Professor of History and Director, Immigration History Research Center

These days, the “Dream Act? dominates news coverage of immigrant education issues. But while legislators debate the pros and cons of offering in-state college tuition to young immigrants without papers (as ten states already do), educators around the nation face the more mundane, everyday tasks of educating the millions of children--in primary and secondary schools—whose education firmly remains a right. What are their concerns?

Teaching and learning English remains the top priority of newly-arrived foreigners and those who teach their children. Language learning is also the focus of intense and often negative scrutiny from the surprisingly large numbers of Americans who believe that schools are failing in their job of teaching English.

Not surprisingly, language is by far the most common issue explored in newspaper articles that discuss education and immigration.

Educators and scholars agree that young children can learn English very quickly (for the case of some recently–arrived Hmong refugees in Wisconsin, see: http://www.postcrescent.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070425/APC0101/70425169/1979). But for older children, and especially for those over eleven or twelve years of age, the struggle to learn a new language increases.

In discussing immigrants children’s education, many teachers remain convinced that older children—who are at the highest risk of falling behind, failing and dropping out of school—must be offered academic instruction in their native tongues while they receive English-as-a-second-language instruction. Yet bi-lingual education programs like these remain intensely controversial among parents and voters; critics continue to question their success rates. Once debated in a few, large American cities, discussions of bi-lingual and “total immersion? strategies for teaching English now appear on the editorial pages of newspapers in the Midwest and in southeastern states like Georgia. (http://www.ajc.com/services/content/opinion/stories/2007/04/12/0413edenglish.html?cxtype=rss&cxsvc=7&cxcat=17)

For many teachers the most troubling challenges posed by the influx of large numbers of immigrants is not how to teach them English but rather the threat of losing federal funding while they struggle to do so. Will schools with high numbers of recently arrived immigrant children inevitably fail to fulfill the requirements of the no “child left behind? act or similar state-mandated tests of teachers’ effectiveness? Last week, readers in Dallas learned about the qualities that kept at least some local, urban schools highly competitive, despite large numbers of immigrant students (http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/columnists/wmckenzie/stories/DN-mckenziepts_22edi.ART.State.Edition1.4301a64.html) while readers in Phoenix learned that the federal evaluators were themselves considering whether to exempt students in the country fewer than three years from the law’s testing requirements.

It’s somewhat jarring to recognize that debates about the “dream act?—a program that would arguably help only English-speaking immigrant teenagers—co-exists with such intense concerns that immigrant children are not learning English quickly enough and that their schools will suffer as a result.

A century ago there was no federally or state-mandated testing of school children. At that time, New York City schools began offering instruction in English (and in foreign languages for older immigrant children) simply because teachers had discovered that older children placed on the basis of their language skills in first grade classrooms for purposes of swift immersion were so socially humiliated that they typically failed to return to school. Even with such programs in place, furthermore, not all immigrants learned to master English, especially when they arrived in the U.S. as adults. (My own grandmother never learned English, for example.)

The children of immigrants a century ago were typically bi-lingual, while “English-only? became the most common pattern among the immigrants’ grand-children. Scholars who compare language use among immigrants, past and present, tend to find similar patterns among both groups. They fairly consistently conclude that fears about today’s immigrants’ resistance to English-learning are greatly exaggerated. (See, for example, http://www.migrationinformation.org/Feature/display.cfm?ID=282). At most they expect that the grandchildren of today’s immigrants, living as they do in a highly mobile world, may exhibit slightly higher rates of bi-lingualism than was true a century ago.

Despite studies like these it will probably be a very long time before reports on public school efforts to teach immigrants other absolutely essential skills of American life (for example how to drive: http://www.mankatofreepress.com/local/local_story_108214256.html?keyword=topstory) can challenge the obsessive focus of the American media on the language issues. We can expect to read many, many more articles about how well or how poorly public schools are doing in encouraging English usage among immigrants and their children. Ironically, it may be exactly this constant attention to the issue that will push today’s immigrants and their descendants along the same path to English-only monolingualism as it did among their predecessors.


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Ott published on April 30, 2007 11:02 AM.

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