Thursday, August 23, 2007

Learning a second language

Learning a second language

When simple solutions and anecdotes collide with the facts

By John Moore and Ana Celia Zentella
June 28, 2007

Invoking simple solutions to complex problems is an easy and effective rhetorical device. No need to do research, check facts, consider complexities – just assert the solution and, as long as it is close enough to what people already believe, the argument is won.

It works even better if you can add a personal anecdote. This was the case with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent suggestion that Spanish-speaking families turn off their Spanish television programs and watch English-language TV instead. Unfortunately, the governor's suggestion, based on his own subjective experience, belies a number of misconceptions about language demographics, second-language acquisition and pedagogy.

From media discussions, one would think that Latino communities are Spanish-only language ghettos where no one is willing to learn English. However, the facts are otherwise. More than 70 percent of Spanish-speakers in the United States are also fluent in English, and a very large number of U.S. Latinos can only speak English.

Those who do not attain fluency in English are almost exclusively first-generation immigrants who came to the United States as adults. Anyone who has tried to learn a second language as an adult knows how difficult it is. Nevertheless, even these first-generation Spanish-speakers are learning English in greater numbers than has ever been the case in our history as an immigrant nation, and many of their children are learning little or no Spanish. (Readers may have witnessed a Spanish-speaking mother talking to her child in Spanish, while the child answers in English.)

Research shows that the loss of an immigrant language once took three generations but that it is now common for a transition from Spanish to English to happen in two. The perception that Spanish-speakers won't speak English is simply false – they do and they do so faster than earlier immigrants did.

This is not to say that there are no problems. California does have a large number of limited-English proficiency students who struggle to pass the English Language Arts, or ELA, section of CAHSEE, the state high school exit exam, which was first required for graduation in 2006. These students are typically first-generation Latinos, often arriving in their teens. They quickly become fluent in spoken English, but may fail to develop the English needed in academic contexts because acquiring those reading and writing skills can take more than five years.

The evaluators of the 2006 CAHSEE found that “recently enrolled students performed less well.” Students in the 10th grade, who had enrolled since 2000, “had significantly lower ELA passing rates (below 40 percent) compared to students who had been enrolled for longer periods.” This percentage decreased to 30 and 15 for students who enrolled in 2004 and 2006, respectively. Interestingly, these same students had less difficulty with the math test; between 40 percent and 50 percent of them passed it. Clearly, recent arrivals are capable students, but many run out of time before they can learn enough English to pass the exam upon which their diploma hinges, despite having passed all other state and course requirements.

The issues are complex and are, unfortunately, not amenable to simple solutions. The journalist who asked the governor's opinion about the CAHSEE results was posing a serious question about a major problem confronting immigrant adolescents that turning off their parents' telenovelas will not solve. Because these students are generally fluent in English, they are already watching English-language TV.

Although watching TV may help in acquiring some aspects of spoken language (e.g., vocabulary and pronunciation), programs such as “American Idol” (or even “Terminator” movies) will be of little help in developing the literacy skills needed to pass the ELA portion of the CAHSEE. In fact, wouldn't it be better for all students to turn off the TV altogether? The governor's suggestion is an unhelpful and flip response to a difficult pedagogical situation.

Rarely do politicians think to consult language researchers when dealing with linguistic problems. The governor seems to think that his recollection of his own experience with learning English is enough evidence to know how to deal with complex issues of second-language acquisition and literacy among poor immigrants under very different circumstances. However, we still harbor hope that research and facts might occasionally trump a facile appeal to personal anecdotes, so often invoked in political discourse.

Moore is a professor and chair of the Department of Linguistics, and Celia Zentella is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies, both at the University of California San Diego.

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