Thursday, September 14, 2006

Study says English is alive, well

This restates what my book is about. Schooling is subtractive. -Angela
Sept. 14, 2006, 6:04AM

Study says English is alive, well
Offspring of immigrants are increasingly losing touch with their native tongues
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

The English language is not an endangered species in the United States, despite an influx of immigrants, according to a study published Wednesday.

Researchers from the University of California at Irvine, and Princeton University found that even in Southern California, which counts the nation's largest Spanish-speaking population, third-generation Americans are rarely fluent in their immigrant ancestors' native tongue.

"If there's one thing that can come out of our study, it's, 'Relax, there's nothing to fear,' " said Ruben Rumbaut, a professor of sociology at the University of California, who co-authored the article in the journal Population and Development Review.

History has shown that the children of immigrants tend to abandon their native language for English, and that is also the case now among Hispanics, Rumbaut said ˜ despite a recent book by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington that argues Latinos today are different.

"People worried when the Italians and the Jews came to New York and when the Irish came before them. But the fact of the matter is ... English is not threatened in the United States today or in the world."

Factor in global economy

What's threatened, Rumbaut said, is Spanish. According to his study, the likelihood that a great-grandchild of a Mexican immigrant will speak Spanish is 3 percent. And that inevitable language loss has serious implications for lawmakers, corporate executives and educators, he said, as they debate how the English language fits into an increasingly global economy.

Massey Villarreal, the president and chief executive officer of Houston-based Precision Task Group, said he has struggled to find skilled technology workers who can speak both English and Spanish.

"I want to 'Amen' the study," said Villarreal, who is vice chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "By the time I get a third-generation American, they can no longer speak the language. And I think for us to compete in a global economy, our kids need to be bilingual."

Villarreal, whose father was born in Mexico, said he has experienced the loss of language in his family. He described himself as "99 percent fluent in Spanish" but said his writing skills fall short. And the situation is worse for his children.

"My daughter can speak Spanish," he said, "but she could not work for Halliburton and talk about doing business in Colombia. She could not negotiate a contract."

Schools in a quandary

To some who oppose bilingual education, the California study sends a troubling message.

"No one's saying that language preservation is not a noble goal," said Don Soifer, an education analyst at the conservative Lexington Institute, which supports immersing immigrant children in English-only classes. "The problem is when it comes at the expense of these kids' only opportunity to learn English."

School districts across the nation, especially those in border states, find themselves in a tricky situation. On one hand, the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 pushes immigrant children to learn English as fast as they can. At the same time, businesses struggling to compete internationally want bilingual employees.

In 1998, California led the nation in pushing English-only instruction, rather than using a bilingual program that teaches students in their native language and gradually incorporates English. Texas uses the bilingual approach, though the State Board of Education discussed moving toward an immersion, or mostly English, approach earlier this year.

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