The language graveyard

A recent study from the University of California, "Linguistic Life Expectancies: Immigrant Language Retention in Southern California" (PDF), reveals that Spanish-speaking immigrants adopt English very quickly.

According to Zach Patton of Governing.com‘s 13th Floor, "By the third generation, an immigrant family generally won’t even speak Spanish." He quotes Ruben Rumbaut, a UC-Irvine sociology professor and study co-author, "The United States is a language graveyard. The shift [toward English only] is rapid, and it’s essentially complete by the third generation."

California Progress Report cites the study, "What is endangered, say the authors, is not the dominance of English but the survival of the non-English languages immigrants bring with them to the United States."

This morning, National Public Radio aired the first of two pieces on an effort to help Americans to understand why immigrants come to the US, what propels them and what conditions might be like in their home countries. From the story:

[Rick] Givens [of North Carolina] took part in a program called the Latino Initiative, which was then just getting under way. It’s run by the University of North Carolina’s Center for International Understanding, and the highlight is a weeklong visit to Mexico. That’s when Givens says his "aha" moment came.

It was a Friday night, and he was having dinner with a couple who had three sons living in the United States illegally. One son was home visiting, but planned to be back at his job in Los Angeles on Tuesday morning. When Givens asked how he could make such a journey so quickly, the man said it was simple: A paid smuggler would tell him when there was no one watching the border so he could slip across.

"That told me both sides are crooked, and this whole thing is far above our heads," Givens says.

Other people on the trip noted how sad family members in Mexico seemed to feel, as loved ones leave for "greener pastures" with the sense that they don’t have a choice. Another "aha" moment came for one woman who realized the cultural differences between Mexicans and Americans when it comes to their communication styles, and she was eager to bring that understanding back to people in her community.

Waiting outside the local elementary school for my own children one day recently, I had an exchange with the older gentleman who picks up the Mexican girl whom I walked to school for two years—whose parents neither speak much English, if any, nor read in English or Spanish. The man told me that he is not her neighbor but that his wife has been trying to tutor the little girl.

"She’s not learning to read," he said, "and she doesn’t know her numbers. She can’t do math. My wife has been trying to teach her after school because this girl, she is in second grade now. She should know how to add numbers, how to read words in English."

I nodded my head. Why did I not give her extra attention when I could? Sometimes just trying to speak English with her was a huge struggle, trying to figure out what important item she needed to tell me about whether anyone would be home after school that day, for example—basic things. "And the parents do not read," I pointed out. "So they are not able to help her at home."

The man nodded vigorously. It was good to know that the girl still has someone looking out for her. But in all too many cases, every single immigrant child in the city needs a team of supporters, and the system breaks too easily. Sometimes it seems to break because of our simple failure to understand what’s needed. We could use our own Latino Initiative—for starters.

Author: Heather Brandon

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