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Debunking myths on immigrant education

Guest Blogger

Skirmishes over immigration often take place in the schoolyard. Those opposed to immigration claim that bilingual school programs impair a child’s academic success and that school children who retain their foreign language are threatening the future of English in America. Rosemary Salomone begs to differ. In her book “True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children,” published last month by Harvard University Press, Salomone takes a hard look at the research and debunks a range of myths on immigrant schooling. Salomone is Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St. John's University School of Law.

By Rosemary Salomone

Washington is finally returning to the No Child Left Behind Act, the controversial federal funding law adopted in 2001 with bipartisan congressional support. The program’s mandates on student testing and school accountability have faced a range of criticism. For the nation’s more than 5 million immigrant children who lack proficiency in English, the mandates are particularly worrisome because they promote English-only instruction at the expense of bilingual skills. This approach, however, is based on myths about bilingualism and dual language instruction and suffers from an absence of solid research.

One of the oldest -- and now widely discredited -- arguments holds that bilingualism is potentially harmful to cognition and learning. But recent findings suggest that, in fact, bilingualism enhances mental flexibility, creative thinking, and the capacity to read social cues. It may even protect individuals from cognitive decline as they age.

Psychologists have found that children raised bilingually are better able to screen out irrelevant information, which may offer an early advantage in problem solving. Researchers also have found a social component related to what psychologists call “emotional” intelligence. Speakers of more than one language appear to be particularly adept at reading the abstract mental states of others and at predicting their behavior, a highly useful trait in a culturally diverse and transnational world.

Studies indicate that children who initially learn to read in the language used at home also develop conceptual and linguistic skills that serve them well for acquiring a second language and succeeding in the academic world. Though it seems intuitively reasonable that the more time spent on learning English, the better it is learned, findings increasingly suggest that students taught in both their native language and English outperform similar children in all-English classes on tests of English reading proficiency. This is the case from elementary through high school.

Findings especially support dual language immersion programs (half instructional time in English, half in the native language) as most effective for developing proficiency in two languages across the curriculum; dual language immersion programs also have been found to produce the fewest number of students dropping out of school.

Facts also defy rhetoric on the question of language retention. Bilingualism across generations, common among Spanish speakers, is often misconstrued, especially within anti-immigrant circles, as a sign of resistance to learning English. Unlike immigrants of the past, and other non-English speakers today, many within the third generation still are comfortable speaking both English and Spanish. Yet in a typical immigrant pattern, the second generation overwhelmingly is fluent in English by adolescence and speaks primarily English at home as adults.

Sociologists and psychologists point out that immigrant children actually gain emotionally and academically from the ability to communicate in their native language with family, especially grandparents, and community members and from the close-knit ties that fluency engenders. Many young adults affirm the importance of language in maintaining such relationships.

These findings undeniably invite additional controlled studies. Nonetheless, they are a necessary starting point for lawmakers reconsidering the No Child Left Behind policy. The new law should discard the absolutist and dubiously grounded arguments of those who ignore, or simply do not understand, the subtleties of language learning and academic achievement, and the rich linguistic and cultural resources that immigrant children bring to the school setting.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  April 6, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: no child left behind policy debate; educating immigrant children; bilingualism among immigrants  
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A Roman Catholic teacher at a Roman Catholic school argues in favor of the Roman Catholic Church's published stratagem, "The National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry,"(Publication / Office of Publishing and Promotion Services, United States Catholic Conference, No. 199-7) take back Our Land, through promotion of illegal immigration, "stolen by Anglos" from "their" ancestors.

Maintaining use of Spanish, legal aid, staying away from Protestants and evangelicals, naturalization, voter's all in it. Read it yourself. No doubt Ms. Rosemary has: her words are in perfect accord with Rome's published, publicly available plan.

Posted by: iamerican | April 6, 2010 8:03 AM | Report abuse

The writer opined, in-part:

Facts also defy rhetoric on the question of language retention. Bilingualism across generations, common among Spanish speakers, is often misconstrued, especially within anti-immigrant circles, as a sign of resistance to learning English. [...]


Actually, no.

It's considered a sign of multigenerational resistance to Becoming American.

Indeed: it's nothing less the invasive cultural chauvinism that shows up in a drop-out rate even in the 3rd generation of US-born citizens of Mexican ancestry, and this is reflected in the vastly higher rates of gangs, criminality in general, and even pervasive spousal and child-abuse rates in these communities.

If Mexico was so wonderful, why ever did these people leave it? Oh, that's right, institutionalized corruption, brutalization of the poor by the rich, and a lack of opportunities for all but the elite. And if Mexico was so bad as to force emigration, why bring Mexico -- or any of Latin America -- here to the USA, to fester in the heartland like a cancer in the guts?

Importing Spanish Language is importing utterly failed culture. This isn't "rich" or "vibrant". It's a shambling corpse that leaves a vile stench everywhere it passes.

Smells like American Hating Foreign Racists to me... but what it looks like is a culture of gangsters refusing to get with the program and promote a way of life and a culture proven to be the best on th planet.

Well, it _usd to be_ the best on the planet before the Invasion came and the politicians surrendered to the claims of propagandists...

Posted by: thardman | April 6, 2010 8:05 AM | Report abuse

As a speaker of several languages, and as one who has devoted his life to immersion in another culture, I can attest that language learning expands the mind and contributes to a better life in many ways. But it should not be the means through which core subjects are taught in elementary education. Imagine teaching some children math in one language and others in another language. Even simply from the practical administrative angle, what folly!

Furthermore, every nation needs a linguistic anchor if it is to hold together. We see the fractures in the social frame of our own country and how the push for Spanish as a primary language has divided us even further. Keep the language of your family at home. We are a nation of English speakers -- at least in our public discourse.

Posted by: aspidistra | April 6, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

The open-borders people are always busy, busy bees.
- - - -
Border Enforcement + Immigration Moratorium = Job, Crime and Eco Sanity.

Posted by: tma_sierrahills | April 6, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

Eh, some of us have read the same SciAm materials you have, and you are manipulating the findings to fit into your political agenda. If the text of this column is the meat of your book then calling the book a "debunking" of myths is laughable. It should be called "How to twist marginally related studies of the Brain's auditory memory complex into a pro-illegal immigrant political position."

Posted by: DPoniatowski | April 6, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

Where to start?

The claim that; "...students taught in both their native language and English outperform similar children in all-English classes on tests of English reading proficiency." is laughable at best. She could have at least qualified it by adding "...among those mexicans, less than 50% of those who start, who ultimately graduate from high school...". The contention that any mexican dropout can read better than the 'average' honors and AP class high school student makes the whole article laughable.

"Emotional intelligence" - how exactly did the researchers measure this among mexican dropouts?

"Social cues" - like, 'yo es mui macho than tu' so let's shoot at each other for awhile then do drugs then go rob a liquor store...

As someone just said; the immigration apologists are busy, busy, busy!

Posted by: Heerman532 | April 6, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Once again I haveno idea if this is about immigrants or ILLEGAL ALIENS ! Most of the problem is because of ILLEGALS when you realize this you'll be a lot smarter than this clown !!! and P.S. Boo Hoo !

Posted by: catinhat83510496 | April 6, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

You do not address what is the actual core of the issue.
Why educate these children at all?
It comes at our expense not theirs and many of them are illegal aliens brought here by greedy businessmen to work as slave labor. If you educate the children of illegals they won't want to remain slaves which will mean even more illegal immigration as business is not going to give up the cheap labor.
No education for illegals is the smartest most cost effective solution.

Posted by: mimelc | April 6, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

If any of the author's PCBS was true, then we wouldn't have Press 2 For English and Press 1 for Spanish 30 years after the first mistaken amnesty.

Nor would we have every major Federal bureaucracy requiring English speakers to speak Spanish with the agency's own PC BS Press 2 for English phone prompts.

Posted by: Patriot12 | April 6, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

All children are left behind who don't learn both English and Spanish. In Canada all children learn both English and French.

We, as a people are educationally impoverished by our failure to be bilingual. Most Europeans laugh at our inability to speak more than one language. Many Europeans are comfortable in three languages.

Many Americans are not even proficient in one language. Their writing and spelling are deplorable. Our entire educational system sucks for not being totally bilingual.

Posted by: alance | April 6, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

The Supreme Court already spoke in Horne vs Flores. ELI beats bilingual education for effectiveness.

Posted by: Estoban | April 6, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

We, as a people are educationally impoverished by our failure to be bilingual. Most Europeans laugh at our inability to speak more than one language. '
Yes, of coruse, we need to change our entire 250-plus-years-old cultural heritage, just because some Europeans might laugh at us. Good thinkin' there, Lincoln.

And as anybody who has ever traveled in Europe already knows, English is the linigua franca of the whole EU. That's because -- shocka! -- they needed a common language to be able to do business together as a federated state, and English was the one that was most practical.

If we are all bilinigual in Spanish and English, what's the point of having two languages again? Oh, I get it, eventually there will be just ONE language -- Spanish. Just as Spanish is the official language is in all the other Latin American countries.

No thanks, we like our culture and our language just fine, and we have no need to change it just because millions of foreign lawbreakers decided they liked living in our country better than their own.

Posted by: MaryJessel | April 6, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

When I saw the title: "Debunking myths on immigrant education" I thought the post was going to debunk things like:

-Illegal immigrant children are costing us an absolute fortune to educate. At $8-$12 thousand dollar per child per year. It costs us more than 3 times what these people earn.

or I thought this post was going to talk about how:

- Latino (illegal & legal immigrant) children can't graduate from high school with drop out rates of 50%. How the US's future is bleak since we're becoming a bunch of high school dropouts that can't even compete against China or India, or a developed country.

or I thought, based on that title, the post was going to talk about how:

- the illegal immigrant children are on free and subsidized meals at schools - and how we are paying for it.

Or maybe how...

- gang growth is skyrocketing, creating violence, crime, and balkanization of America.

But I guess those items above aren't myths...I guess the only myth is that there's some evidence that speaking two languages at school has some benefits.

Who cares about this? Focus some real issues and stop those misleading titles.

Posted by: Fairfaxico | April 6, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Illegal aliens are destroying this Country, and one would have to be almost blind not to see this. How much longer do we have to support these illegal aliens? How much longer do we have to school their illegal alien children? How much longer are we going to let them have our jobs? How much longer are we going to put up with all the crime, stolen identities, forged documents, fake green cards? How much longer are we going to allow these illegal aliens to send money out of this Country and bring our Country down? Oh, amnesty will correct all this. WRONG! Nothing will change except we wouldn't be able to call them illegal aliens any more. Let's get rid of these illegal aliens! Let's get them back to their own Country where they belong!

For the Love of God, get our immigration laws ENFORCED! GEEEEEZ!

Posted by: scuncic | April 6, 2010 10:31 PM | Report abuse

Great, yet another American working to turn her own country into a Third World backwater. I hope she has her fiddle at the ready, because Rome is burning -- and the ashes will be about as prosperous and law-abiding as Juarez.

Posted by: bstanman83 | April 7, 2010 1:12 AM | Report abuse

I was actually wondering what would be the next thing on La Raza's "Taking Over America To Do List" if Obama pushes through Amnesty and after readng this article I think that I figured it out.

First, they will start demanding that we teach in both languages at our schools English/Spanish and then move on to demanding that state wide testing at our schools also be offered in Spanish.

At the rate that we are going I wouldn't be surprised to hear in the future that English only speaking students cannot graduate until they also become efficient in Spanish.

I am so tired of hearing this group of people complain about how hard they have it when they get catered to more than anyone else in this country.

You know, like the actual CITIZENS.

Posted by: NoMoreGoldenState | April 7, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

The books' author might want to look at stats from the Los Angeles Unified School District which state 70% of students in English-learning classes were BORN in the U.S.;in other words,the parent(s) cannot be bothered to learn the prevailing language.Many of the children have been in ELL since first grade and are now in high school. Take the intiative to learn ONE word of English every day.365x6=2190 words.Naw-I DEMAND a free(except to the citizen taxpayers)translator in the physicians' office,in court,in the hospital,and I want all official government documents in my language,also!
Gimmee,gimmee,gimmee.Make all social services available only in English-food stamps/WIC/Medicaid-and watch the English fluency skyrocket.But that action would be nativist,xenophobic, racist and just plain mean,correct?

Posted by: VirchowsHarlot | April 7, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Salome is taking studies about bilingualism in general and applying them to bilingual classroom instruction in particular. These are two different things, and there's no reason to think that the same conclusions apply. Moreover, none of her studies say anything about a bilingually-educated child's ability to succeed in school more generally or the world at large, and that's where most criticism of bilingual education has come from.

Posted by: tomtildrum | April 8, 2010 6:29 AM | Report abuse

1/ Texas & most of California were part of Mexico.
2/ Florida was under Spanish rule.
3/ US corporations like to have staff who speak Spanish so they can expand into Spanish speaking markets and make more profits.
4/ If you are worried that the hispanic population is increasing rapidly, then stop taking contraception and don't have abortions and start breeding!

What's your problem?

Posted by: jorgegomez911 | April 8, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse

What's your problem?
Most "Hispanic" countries are third world dumps: that's our problem. We don't want to be one too: we gringos have a higher standard of what we consider to be decent country, and a decent quality of life. Texas, California and Florida would all be the same way as all of Latin America if they'd stayed under Spanish and Mexican rule.

Those states are now returning to their natural condition, as propagated by Hispanic culture -- poor, corrupt, uneducated, violent. I am a native Californian and I have seen it happen in my life time. From First World, modern, very high standard of life to poor, uneducated, corrupt, controlled by drug-gangs.

Posted by: MaryJessel | April 8, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

If the Hispanic culture worries you, then you need to breed faster than the Hispanics.

Or you could always get in more immigrants from Britain, Germany, Austria, Australia, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Sweden, Finland and other countries where their economy is strong and they know how to speak English.

You might want to include immigrants from China because currently, in China, it is trendy to learn English.

Posted by: jorgegomez911 | April 8, 2010 7:11 PM | Report abuse

Who's leading the Formula 1 championship at the moment?

A Latin American (Mr. Massa), followed closely by a Spanish Speaking Driver (Mr. Alonso).

They are not drug dealers. They are race car drivers.

Posted by: jorgegomez911 | April 8, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

In relation to Trade, Australia is trying to trade more with Latin America.

And guess who is helping Australian companies enter the Latin American Market?

That's right, it's the Latino/Hispanic immigrant population of Australia who are giving Australian companies that edge. The Hispanics in Australia are very handy since they speak both English and Spanish fluently and understand both cultures.

Posted by: jorgegomez911 | April 8, 2010 7:27 PM | Report abuse

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