Who Learns a Second Language?

In response to my post on bystander intervention last month, an anonymous commentator maintained that the behavior of a deli clerk in an ABC News social experiment was not racist. Rather, the commentator argued, the deli clerk was reacting to the lack of assimilation on the part of the Mexican day laborers who could not place their order because of their lack of English proficiency. If they want to live in the United States, Anonymous asked, shouldn’t they learn English? Aside from the victim-blaming nature of the comment, I thought that Anonymous raised an interesting question, and in my brief reply, I mentioned that I’ve traveled to many countries where English is not the primary language and where I could not speak the native language, but I was always assisted by native speakers in ordering food, getting directions, finding transportation, and the like. Moreover, I pointed out that learning a foreign language takes time. But in thinking more about Anonymous’ question, I was compelled to explore the issue of foreign language acquisition further.

I was curious, for example, to learn just how long it does take for a non-English speaker to become proficient enough in English to be functionally literate (i.e., to be able to perform basic tasks of everyday living without difficulty). Not surprisingly, a number of factors play a part. One of the most important variables is the amount of formal schooling individuals have received in their first language. In a longitudinal study (1982-1996) of about 700,000 English language students who had no background in English, Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier found that children 8-11 years old who had had 2-3 years of formal education in their native language took 5-7 years to become proficient enough in English to reach native speaker performance (i.e., 50th percentile) on normed tests. However, individuals with little or no formal schooling in their native language (e.g., children younger than 8, or individuals who were below grade level in reading and writing in their native language) took 7-10 years to reach native speaker performance. Thomas and Collier reported that these findings do not differ by native language (e.g., they studied Asian and Hispanic students), country of origin, or socioeconomic status, although we know that socioeconomic status itself is directly related to educational achievement.

Drawing on Thomas and Collier’s findings, Judie Haynes, writing for everythingESL.net, argues that maintenance of literacy in one’s native language should be encouraged and fostered while English is being learned, and she advocates a developmental bilingual or two-way immersion program in U.S. schools, an idea that “assimilationists” would no doubt consider anathema. Additional research, though, supports Haynes’ position, showing that bilingualism is positively, not negatively, associated with scholarly achievement (see, for example, research cited by Alejandro Portes and Ruben Rumbaut in Immigrant America: A Portrait, 3/e, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006, especially Chapter 7). But other studies indicate that the assimilationists needn’t worry: Among immigrant families to the United States, monolingualism is the norm within one or two generations after arrival. Portes and Rumbaut examine research that shows a clear historical pattern in which first generation immigrants learn enough English to get by, but continue to speak their native language at home and often in social settings with other immigrants; the second generation – those who immigrated as children with their parents or were born here – may speak the language of their parents at home, but English everywhere else, thus becoming fluent English speakers and “anglicized.” Members of the third generation typically speak only English, both at home and elsewhere (see also analyses by the Pew Hispanic Center). As Portes and Rumbaut argue:

Fears of linguistic and cultural fragmentation, like fears of ethnic radicalism, play well in the popular press, and harping on them has made the fame and fortune of many a pundit. However, historical and contemporary evidence indicates that English has never been threatened as the dominant language of the United States and that, with well over two hundred million monolingual English speakers, it is not threatened today. The real threat has been to the viability of other languages . . . (p. 242).

Indeed, the National Association for Bilingual Education reports that compared with other countries, the United States lags far behind in terms of the percentage of citizens who speak a second language. While only 9% of Americans speak both their native language and another language fluently, 50% of Europeans are fully bilingual. As Portes and Rumbaut quip,

“What do you call a person who speaks two languages?”
“And one who knows only one?”
“American.” (p. 207)

Though humorous, one unfortunate outcome of the reality this fictitious dialogue represents is that by stubbornly adhering to the false “English-only ideal,” most Americans “[sacrifice] the possibility of looking at things from a different perspective and [become] bound to the symbols and perceptions embedded in a single tongue” (Portes and Rumbaut, p. 242).


  1. jwbe

    My opinion is that when I want to communicate with people I have to learn their language. That’s the reason why I struggle with the English language;-)
    But what is wrong with learning the official language of a country somebody wants to live in? I wouldn’t like to stay in a country not knowing the language and depending on the help of others.

  2. Claire Renzetti Author

    Thanks for your comment, jwbe. I, too, have struggled to learn other languages (German, French, and Spanish), and I have never succeeded to the point where I feel I am a fluent speaker. The point of my post, though, was not that there is anything “wrong” with wanting to learn the official language of a country one wants to live in. To the contrary, the last sentence in my post indicates that learning a second lanugage broadens one’s perspective and worldview. My point was that learning another language is typically a slow and challenging process and that native speakers should not be impatient with and certainly should not discriminate against individuals (as the deli clerk did in the video I discussed in my 1/18 post) who do not speak English well. In addition, I wanted to point out that many Americans who are impatient with immigrants who do not speak English well are also unlikely to learn a second language themselves, as the NABE statistics show. Good luck with your language studies! Bilingualism is a valuable skill.

  3. Joe

    A related point here is why are most native-born Americans so resistnat to learning other languages, which always means broadening horizons and learning about other peoples and cultures.
    And why have we gotten rid of language requirments in high schools ( I took Spanish and Latin in a mediocre Texas high school some decades back) and even in college and for graduate degrees (I had to pass exams in French and German on the way to a Harvard Phd). The protests for poor old (quite unthreatened world dominant English) and against bilingualism (usually only involving Spanish) seem quite ignorant and reactionary.

  4. Claire Renzetti Author

    Great point, Joe. I have also been surprised when I’ve traveled abroad and heard Americans complain about Europeans not speaking English. Setting aside the NABE statistics showing the high percentage of Europeans who do speak English (I believe their figure is 34%), it baffles me why Americans think that people in non-English speaking countries should have learned English.

  5. Claire- It’s true that many first generation immigrants coming to America, don’t learn to speak English. My parents were both Asian immigrants who came to this country to study over 20 years ago. Fortunately, they both learned English and have reached native speaker performance. But some of my dad’s Korean friends, who also immigrated here, are still struggling because they managed to move to a community where their native language was still spoken.

    In concentrated parts of New Jersey and California, there are mini-Korean neighborhoods where all the people that live there are Korean and thus that’s the only language they “need” to know. The customers and employers all continue to live in a Korean society with an American backdrop.

    I definitely feel that it’s important for these people to learn English but I also don’t think it’s right for people to discriminate against them. Like you said Claire, many Americans who are impatient with immigrants for not speaking English well probably aren’t willing to learn a second language themselves…

  6. jwbe

    it baffles me why Americans think that people in non-English speaking countries should have learned English.

    It’s only a guess but I think that this also comes from America having stationed her military world-wide. Even if it is peacefully like in Germany today, it’s still some occupation power, expecting the occupied country to know their English language. Where I worked many years ago many customers were from the American military and businesses who wanted to have them as customers had to know English.
    In Europe English is considered a language one has to know, which is the language of business and also of many scientific texts etc.
    I don’t know if this is still true but France for example does or did a lot that French remains French.
    In Germany Anglizismen, using English words and phrases or inventing English sounding words like “Handy” for mobile phones is unfortunately very popular.
    Once there was the effort, more or less, to destroy the Bavarian language (my native language/dialect), now English is on it’s way to influence the German language. There have been voices now to add the language German to our constitution/protected by the constitution.

  7. wasbornready

    very true jwbe,

    although, in terms of dialects, there ought to be ‘one’ version for foreigners to learn, in any and all languages.

    If one wants to speak one’s ‘dialect’, fine, but one ought to learn the ‘standard’. It’s just an idea to make life easier for everyone. It’s difficult enough to learn German, without making it even more difficult trying to understand all the varieties of dialects!

    We see the problems in English, when one compares the British Isles to the USA. The accents can be a world apart (For example, Scottish v.s. California). Same goes for the German speaking world. The Swiss learn Hoch Deutsch,but speak their own dialect.

    The poor North Germans may have difficulties understanding them, but they understand the North Germans just fine.

    I think the ‘protectionism’ will not work in the long run. Language evolves, and one often eventually emerges. There is no promise this will be English, though!

  8. jwbe

    >If one wants to speak one’s ‘dialect’, fine, but one ought to learn the ’standard’.

    It is a difference if somebody learns the ‘standard’ in addition to ones dialect or if those who define the standard want to prohibit ones dialect. I won’t go into details irrelevant for America I guess, but Bavaria is in many ways considered as a place and people not to be taken seriously and our dialect not worth existing.
    It is not about protectionism, it’s about getting a language imposed by others and having ones own dialect and culture ridiculed by others, non-Bavarians.

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