Harvard Educational Review
  1. Why Don’t They Learn English?

    Separating Fact from Fallacy in the U.S. Language Debate

    By Lucy Tse

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2001. 120 pp. $42.00, $18.95 (paper).

    In Why Don’t They Learn English? Separating Fact from Fallacy in the U.S. Language Debate, Lucy Tse provides an account of the state of English and immigrant home languages in the United States. She challenges the notion that immigrants do not learn English and instead cling to and perpetuate the use of their home, or heritage, language across multiple generations. These perceptions, which Tse says are held by the general public and reflected and perpetuated by the media and policymakers, have influenced current policies on the teaching and learning of English for immigrants. However, citing the most recent research in the fields of second language acquisition and immigrant studies, Tse points out the disparities between these public perceptions and the actual state of English-language learning and use of heritage languages. She debunks existing myths and provides an alternative frame for both policymakers and practitioners in thinking about immigrant language education and policy in the United States today.

    In chapter one, Tse outlines how public perceptions of immigrant language use have shaped current language restriction policies. She looks at proposed constitutional amendments that have come before the U.S. Congress in the past twenty years, which would require the elimination of the use of any language other than English in arenas such as governmental business, social services, and education. Tse examines speeches by congressional leaders and newspaper opinion articles to identify the arguments used to support these official English-language constitutional amendments specifically, and the English-only movement in general. These speeches and articles often include claims that immigrants resist learning English once they are in the United States. Further, these documents often include anti–bilingual education rhetoric that characterizes bilingual education programs as ineffective at best at teaching immigrant children English, and more often painting these programs as a means by which immigrants are insulated from having to learn English. In fact, bilingual education programs and services are often perceived by the general public as doing little to teach English and promote the assimilation of immigrants, which many view as vital to national security. Tse writes that “public opinion on how well children are learning English, as indicated by newspaper opinion pages, mirrors policy-maker views that immigrants and their children are not learning English quickly enough or well enough, and the use of languages other than English in school is to blame” (p. 8).

    In chapter two, Tse points out that these beliefs are, in fact, based on myths. She cites evidence from research that describes how both immigrant adults and children are learning English — often quickly — despite the multiple challenges they face at both the personal and societal level. Tse begins by looking at trends in immigration, noting that while numbers of immigrants have reached new highs, the actual percentage of immigrants in the total U.S. population has steadily declined since 1990. She points out that during the immigration wave of the early 1900s, despite a higher proportion of non-English-speaking newcomers in the United States, English maintained its status as the language of the nation. Alarmists who currently worry about the status and future of English in the United States would do well to keep this in mind. Tse argues that immigrants today have an even more compelling reason to learn English than did their predecessors of the early twentieth century — today’s service-oriented economy requires higher levels of education and higher English proficiency than did the economy of the early twentieth century.

    Immigrants are well aware of their economic situation and, in fact, an overwhelming number of them are learning English, despite public perception to the contrary. Citing U.S. Census data, Tse indicates that immigrant adults report having better English skills the longer they have resided in the United States. She also notes the overwhelming demand for the limited supply of English as a Second Language classes in immigrant communities. Furthermore, Tse speaks specifically to the questions surrounding language learning and academic achievement for immigrant children. She draws on important studies to offer readers a clearer understanding of the state of English-language learning and trends in academic achievement for immigrants and their children. She cites Portes and Hao’s 1988 study that shows not only that children of immigrants are learning English, but also that the overwhelming number of them want to learn English for social and economic reasons. Most children of immigrants feel compelled to learn English so that they can more easily make friends and participate in social events. Tse writes that “among these students . . . English fluency is a badge of prestige, a membership card for entry into the mainstream” (p. 19). They also understand that job and career opportunities are limited for those who cannot speak English. She points to equally important studies such as Portes and Rumbaut’s 1996 study that show that first-generation limited English proficient (LEP) students perform equally well in school as their English-only counterparts. Tse notes that, although there is “variation in performance across ethnic groups and the originating country, immigrant children perform remarkably well overall both in terms of English-language proficiency and in academic achievement and progress” (p. 21). According to Tse, these findings clearly debunk the myth that immigrant students are opposed to or resist English-language learning.

    Tse acknowledges, however, that not all children are learning English and performing academically at an equal rate. Research points to factors such as income, literacy skills and background, and quality of previous general educational experiences that greatly influence English-learning and academic outcomes. A closer examination of relevant background variables will further illuminate our understanding of such variation. This is equally true for adult English-language learners, who often must face high levels of poverty, long work weeks, and insufficient English-language programs to gain proficiency in English. Tse points out that, due to variation in circumstances across different immigrant groups and populations, English-language learning occurs at different rates. Yet, despite this variation, and contrary to public perception, immigrants are learning English and do succeed in school. She writes that “these achievements are being made in spite of formidable economic and social obstacles, including a high level of poverty and inadequate publicly supported English language programs” (p. 29).

    In chapters three, four, and five, Tse addresses what she sees as a greater problem — the loss of heritage languages among immigrant populations by the third generation. Chapter three describes the typical (and short) life of an immigrant language and explores why the heritage language is often completely replaced by English in the immigrant family’s home. In the United States, the English language has powerful appeal, both economically and socially, and immigrants often internalize societal pressure to give up the home language in order to gain English ability. Even when immigrant families do not explicitly seek to lose their home language, limited exposure to and opportunities to learn the heritage language contribute to heritage-language loss. Parents, community members, and especially peers will greatly influence the maintenance or loss of an immigrant child’s heritage language.

    Chapter four explores the benefits of heritage-language development and the consequences of heritage-language loss. Referring to second language acquisition research, Tse points out that for English-language learners, drawing on their primary language can speed the acquisition of English. Education in the heritage language also allows for continued education in core subject matters, so these children do not fall behind in these areas while they acquire English. Tse points out further that “developing heritage languages and fostering bilingualism . . . result in both personal and societal advantages in economic, political, social, and educational sectors” (p. 53).

    Tse points out that there is a linguistic blind spot of public perceptions and educational policies in the United States. On the one hand, foreign language programs abound and proliferate, reaching a 30-year high in 1990, in response to governmental reports and political rhetoric lamenting the lack of foreign-language and international experience among Americans. On the other hand, the route to bilingualism through heritage-language maintenance programs is largely being ignored by policymakers and practitioners — and immigrant children lose their heritage language at great personal and societal cost.

    What then is the solution? Tse advocates providing exposure to the heritage language and expanding conventional notions of group membership through heritage-language education. Tse points to language acquisition research that identifies strong affiliation with ethnic group membership as being key to the contribution of language development. Heritage-language programs, as envisioned in Tse’s book, go beyond the typical bilingual education programs, whose goals are primarily to move into mainstream English classes rather than to maintain the heritage language while acquiring English. The heritage-language programs for which Tse advocates would provide context-embedded exposure to the heritage language by encouraging such practices as recreational reading in the heritage language while also promoting positive attitudes toward the heritage language through group membership.

    Tse ends this book by reiterating that public perceptions of immigrant language learning are based on fallacies that hurt, rather than on truths that might help to create effective language practice and policy solutions for immigrant children and adults. Although not an exhaustive treatment of the subject by any means, Tse’s book offers an accessible and concise summary of the status of English-language learning for immigrant populations for policymakers and practitioners, and provides an important alternative frame through which to view challenges and solutions for English-language learners in the United States.

  2. Share


    Complexity, Accountability, and School Improvement
    Jennifer A. O'Day
    Diversity and Higher Education
    Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes
    Patricia Gurin, Eric L. Dey, Sylvia Hurtado, and Gerald Gurin
    Democracy and Education
    The Missing Link May Be Ours
    John Willinsky

    Book Notes

    Why Don’t They Learn English?
    By Lucy Tse

    Overlooked and Underserved
    By Jorge Ruiz-de-Velasco, Michael Fix, and Beatriz Chu Clewell