The Best Approach to Language Study in the United States

by Maria Alvarez / Mar 19, 2012 / 1 comments

Best Approach to Language Study in the United States: Teaching English to Immigrant Youth and Other Languages to Native English Speakers

“Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America…
I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”
The Uprooted by Oscar Handlin


It might be hard to believe, but the children of immigrants comprise the largest-growing segment of the youthful population in the United States (1). Demographic projections indicate that by the year 2040, one third of all children in America will be immigrant-origin youth; and all of these will be speakers of languages other than English. These children will enroll in our public schools in increasing numbers and our teachers- both experienced and novice - will need to acquire the necessary preparation for working with children from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. The men and women in the proverbial public school ‘trenches’ do not need statistical data to inform them that the face of the American classroom is changing exponentially; nor that many teachers are not adequately prepared for the impact and subsequent repercussions of a growing population of immigrant-origin youth who do not speak English.


In fact, educators in the United States must be proactive, and develop pedagogical solutions that address the social realities of multilingualism and multiculturalism in 21st century America. Ironically, teachers of English abroad have been developing these very solutions in countries where multilingualism and multiculturalism are the norm; and in fact, a celebrated phenomenon. It is unfortunate that requests for pedagogical solutions and accommodations ESOL teachers, school administrators, and researchers across our nation make on behalf of immigrant English language learners and language learning in general, are too often met with vitriolic resistance. It is virtually impossible to discuss pedagogical solutions and the best approach to teaching English to immigrant youth without discussing the smoldering issues surrounding immigration in the United States. The media too often overlooks the human aspect of the immigration dilemma; especially the children involved, who too often end up in hostile environments and toxic schools. These are preexistent problems that the newly arrived immigrant students did not create, but problems for which they are often blamed, nevertheless.


The truth of the matter is that immigrant-origin students do not choose to come to the United States in the first place. They are minor children and accompany their families or join them at some point of the migration process. Sometimes these children are separated from one parent or both for extended periods of time. Burdened with the shock of immigration and the difficulty of transition, immigrant children become displaced persons who absorb the too often negative attitudes and sentiments of those they meet in their new country. If Stephen Krashen is correct when he stated that language teachers must lower the affective filter in the classroom so students can more efficiently absorb a new language, newly arrived immigrant children are at an immediate disadvantage - especially if they are undocumented.


According to the authors of Learning a New Land (2008), there were an estimated 1.8 million undocumented children in the United States when they completed their study. I suspect the number is much higher today. The impact of immigration on our nation’s schools is thoroughly discussed within our society either through the media or within the communities most affected. What is not clearly articulated is the impact immigration has on immigrant children. High drop-out rates are but one indicator our schools either cannot, or simply do not meet their needs, a reality which will ultimately impact society as a whole; but viable solutions do exist.


Rather than point the finger at teachers, it is more productive [and just] to discuss the reasons why our current immigration policy does not facilitate the education of these culturally and linguistically diverse children - documented or undocumented. In addition, it is also more productive to discuss why our schools do not embrace the riches of cultural and linguistic diversity, and have a unified consensus on how to best serve the academic needs of both immigrant and native students. Many U.S. citizens argue that we have ‘our own’ to educate, so why focus on teaching ‘other people’s’ children? It bears mentioning that due to economic hardship, immigrant families are often forced to move into our nation’s poorest neighborhoods. Ironically, it is their arrival and the associated concern with how to teach linguistically and culturally diverse immigrant children that has forced school districts to become increasingly aware of how toxic some schools across the country have become, and the reality of what ‘our children’, the nation’s most disadvantaged students, have endured for years.


Recognizing the general deficiencies in our nation’s schools is but one step towards resolving the complex issue of teaching English to speakers of other languages. It is also a giant leap in recognizing that toxic schools negatively affect all of our nation’s children, who are every day being robbed of their right to a sound education. Schools that cannot adequately educate children in general, will certainly not be able to teach English language learners; and learning English is critical for the success of immigrant children- both academically and socially. In fact, learning English is a priority for immigrant families. They value education and recognize that learning the English language is the key to their social mobility.


So what is the best approach? How do immigrant-origin students best learn the English language? The answers to these questions begin with the education of the general population in the United States. Acquiring a second language is a fluid, but time-intensive process. Too many US native-born citizens do not realize how difficult it is to acquire true fluency in a new language; and I believe this misunderstanding exists because so few native-born US citizens actually study languages, much less speak a second language. This lack of experiential knowledge unites with the unrealistic No Child Left Behind policies and the unjust administration of high risk standardized tests to create ample misunderstanding between schools and citizens. The result is an unfair criticism of immigrant children as the reasons our public schools have lowered academic standards and why so many schools subsequently fail to educate.


These negative sentiments are unreasonable. Limited English language acquisition does not imply limited cognitive ability or an inferior knowledge base. Without academic English abilities, immigrant students struggle in our nation’s schools and do poorly on standardized exams; but immigrant students arrive motivated to learn English and excel academically. They also arrive with a certain knowledge base; but tests administered in the English language cannot possibly access a newly arrived immigrant student’s cognitive abilities or acquired knowledge- unless schools administer these tests in the student’s native language. It is a simple truth that is omitted from the discourse on immigration and immigrant children in our schools.


In fact, immigrant students learn the nuances of social language or informal English relatively quickly, certainly much faster than they learn academic English- a much higher level of language acquisition, which requires years of study. The reality of a student’s social experiences combined with other variables related to family life, socioeconomic status, age of arrival, and quality of academic instruction can either advance an immigrant student’s desire to excel or cripple motivation altogether. Educators must take many variables into consideration when deciding the best approach for teaching English to immigrant-origin students; and after years of research, the studies converge.


The research indicates that dual-immersion classes and high-quality bilingual programs yield the best results for all students; and herein is a solution to the negative associations related to immigrant children and the dearth of language study in the United States. Rather than lose their mother tongue, as the dictates of Americanization at the turn of the century required of immigrants; immigrant-origin students continue to learn in their native language and build fluency, even as they are developing English skills. They also increase their knowledge and fortify cognitive skills. By the same token, native English speakers benefit from a bilingual program because they are acquiring a second language, which creates empathy and develops their metalinguistic skills as well - skills that develop cognitive abilities. I argue that dual immersion classes benefit all students in the United States, not just immigrant-origin students.


I also argue that the study of multiple languages, with English at the forefront of language instruction in the United States, will create a strong, empathic society rich in cross-cultural competencies and void of xenophobic tendencies. The history of the United States is a history of immigrants and immigration. Why do we resist this truth? Immigrant and refugee adults should learn English, of course; and native English speakers should learn other languages as well. Education is the keystone of all societies and knowing multiple languages is key to understanding other cultures. Dual immersion classes in bilingual programs not only best serve the immigrant population they also serve native English speakers. Ultimately, language study serves our pluralistic society as a whole, and prepares the youth of this nation for the impact of globalization. Immigrants define American history and immigrant children are an integral part of America’s future. We need to embrace this truth, collaborate for immigration reform, and educate accordingly. As Maria Montessori once stated, “…establishing peace is the work of education” and language study is key to this work.


This means that all of us wandering educators may find our way home to meet the demand. How many generations of adventurous American citizens have been traipsing the planet teaching English hither and yon?

Maria Alvarez is the ESL Editor for Wandering Educators



(1)  All statistical information in this essay comes from the book, Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society by Carola Suárez-Orozco, Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, and Irina Todorova.


Comments (1)

  • barbaran

    11 years 11 months ago

    Thank you Maria for that informative article.  I agree wholeheartedly that these issues need to be addressed.  And regarding the immigrant children, I agree with you that they too deserve a quality education.  I believe that is a child's right whether the parents are undocumented or not. 

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