Wednesday, June 29, 2011

No Shit Sherlock: The Language Barrier and Hispanic Achievement Gap

I work in a call center, and I get a lot of non-English-speaking Hispanics that call in.  So when I saw the headline to this Time article, language barrier was my very first thought when considering the Hispanic achievement gap in America’s public schools.

Thank God the article mentioned the language barrier, because I was going to shit a brick if there was any mention of racial inequality.  But the article also mentioned that there are low expectations placed on the kids that are also partly the cause of the problem.  Let’s tackle the language barrier issue first.

While I think that it’s a good idea for immigrants to learn the language of a country they want to live and work in, I can understand that it takes time.  When you think about the language barrier and the whole standardized test horse shit, you kind of realize how dumb it is to measure a Spanish speaking kid’s performance in academia when all the material is given in English.  It doesn’t really matter how smart you are: you can’t learn in a language you don’t know.

Does this mean that we say “fuck it” and accommodate them entirely and allow them to test in Spanish and what not?  No, not really.  Not requiring them to learn and be proficient at English is a disservice to those kids.  However, basing their performance and intelligence solely off of English standardized testing is probably not a good thing.  Consider this:  a child with a high IQ and real ability to succeed in academia can only take English standardized tests his entire public education career.  He was brought to America by his parents past the point when a child acquires his or her primary language, and is now forced to learn English.

This kid would probably flourish in an academic setting in his native tongue, but American standardized testing would tell him that he’s a moron.  Is this just?

Now I know what you’re thinking:  no one forced them to come here.  Well, these parents are forcing their kids to come here.  I’m not saying that these kids need to be segregated into their own Spanish-speaking classrooms.  I am supportive, however, of the idea of making accommodations for them to bridge the language gap so that they can not only become proficient in English, but so that they can also live up to their full academic potential.

This could be one of those unfixable situations.  Kids that excel in school are often very positively supported by their parents, and if your parents don’t speak English, how can they help you with your homework?

As far as low expectations go, I don’t think this has much to do with race.  I mean sure, we can assume that when a kid is Hispanic and doesn’t speak English that there’s going to be a great bit of difficulty in helping him reach his full potential in the American education system.  But to be honest, I would think the same thing about someone who emigrated from Eastern Europe and only speaks Ukrainian.  It’s not that the kids are dumb, it’s just that they’ve got a huge barrier to overcome, especially when you consider that not every person is equally capable of learning language.

This leads me to believe that it is a good thing to want immigrants to learn English when they come here to America.  This is not xenophobia or Nativism, this is about practicality and wanting people to succeed.  Not only would it be less annoying for English speakers who are not equipped to deal with language barriers, but it would be extremely beneficial to them.  They would be able to navigate American society more fluidly and help their children in their studies.

This is actually the opposite of racism and cultural intolerance.  Learning another language does not destroy one’s cultural identity, and wanting immigrants to be able to succeed in American society is an admirable goal.  It’s unfeasible and unfair to ask a nation to change everything about itself to accommodate every single person that comes here.  Most other countries make no such accommodations, and rightly so.

It makes sense for a Middle Eastern country to adopt English signs when nearly half its population speaks English.  It would be unfair to suggest that France should have all English/French signs simply because a fraction of its population speaks English natively.  So why don’t we shit on other countries for simply trying to make life as easy as possible for its natural citizens?

Everyone in America deserves the chance to be the best that they can be so that they can lead happy and fulfilled lives, so getting them to learn English can only be a good thing.


Silverfiddle said...

Being able to read, write and speak the language of the country you live in is essential to success.

Another factor with Hispanic kids (and some adults) is that some are functionally illiterate in Spanish as well, coming from a very poor background.

Data has shown that the quicker you immerse these kids in English, the better they do in the long run.

Harrison said...

I lived in Europe - France - and often I would get lazy and hang out with Americans due to being able to speak English. I learned French, but it slowed me a down alot. I'd imagine these kids speak mostly Spanish at home and with their friends and since many non-native speakers probably don't hang out with them they have few opportunities to learn English. Plus you know most schools make it easy for them not to learn English.

Jack Camwell said...

You both bring up very good points. I also dislike how people insist that they not be pushed to learn English in the name of multiculturalism.

Learning another language does not destroy one's cultural identity.