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When people visit ethnic enclaves in big cities (e.g., East Los Angeles, Little Saigon, and Chinatown), they often get the impression that these are linguistic ghettos where only Spanish, Vietnamese, or Chinese is spoken generation after generation. It may seem as though some people in these communities do not speak English at all and are not interested in learning it. However, contrary to the popular assumption that immigrants are staying in language ghettos, they are learning English, and in fact, losing their native languages in the process.

In her book, Why don’t they learn English?: Separating fact from fallacy in the U.S. language debate, Lucy Tse (2001) observes that these ethnically concentrated communities get started and perpetuated with influxes of new immigrants. She notes that when adult immigrants arrive, especially without significant financial resources or English skills, they tend to gravitate toward communities where they are likely to get assistance in settling into their new surroundings. These communities provide the new arrivals with the ability to survive without significant English ability, and may provide formal or informal networks for getting a job, finding housing, and navigating life in a new country. However, second and later generations are less likely to live as adults and raise their own families in such communities, especially since immigrant enclaves tend to be in poor neighborhoods. Once people have the linguistic and financial means to move out of such communities, many do so.

I have never met an immigrant who does not want to learn English. This is true even for my 75-year-old mother-in-law who has been learning English ever since she first came to America in 1980 and is still taking classes. Immigrants know full well the value of knowing English. The inability to speak English forces many immigrants to take low-paying jobs or perform menial tasks despite having high levels of education and training from their home countries. While immigrants in earlier days could labor on farms, work in factories, and build railroads without speaking much English, today’s service- oriented economy requires English ability for all but the lowest paying jobs. Immigrants know that mastering the societal language is their ticket to success in the new country.

Furthermore, lack of English skills is a source of a great deal of stress for the immigrant family as parents must rely on their school-age children to translate simple documents in English or to inquire about credit card bills or bank statements. It is embarrassing for parents to depend on their children for things that they should ordinarily be able to do, and frustrating for the children whose parents are so dependent on them for even the very basic tasks. Working long hours in one or more low-paying jobs limits the opportunities for immigrants to improve their English by leaving them little time and energy to attend English classes. It is enormously stressful to manage long working hours, family responsibilities, and children’s education, all in a linguistically and culturally foreign environment.

Free or low-cost English as a Second Language (ESL) classes usually fill up quickly and often have long waiting lists. According to a U.S. Census report, the foreign-born population of the U.S. has continued to increase in size and as a proportion of the total population during the last four decades: from 9.6 million (4.7%) in 1970 to 38.5 million (12.5%) in 2009 (Grieco & Trevelyan, 2010). Of the 38.5 million foreign-born residents, only 921,548 adults were enrolled in federally funded, state-administered ESL programs in program year 2009-2010 (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, 2011), which means that the unmet need is enormous. In addition to federally funded programs, English instruction is offered by volunteer and faith-based organizations, museums, libraries and other community centers, private language schools, and academic institutions (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2010). Even with these programs however, the demand for low-cost ESL classes far outstrips supply.

Many immigrants wait months or even years to enroll in government- financed English classes, which are often overcrowded and lack textbooks (Santos, 2007). The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conducted a study to examine the wait times associated with popular adult ESL programs across the country (Tucker, 2006). Among 176 adult ESL providers surveyed, 57% reported that their waiting list was from a few weeks to more than three years. In some parts of the country, such as New York City, waiting lists have been abolished, because the wait has become too long. Rather than put students on waiting lists, some programs place students in available classes that may not meet the students’ specific goals or are not the appropriate instructional level, in the hope that space in a suitable class will open up.

Although many first-generation adult immigrants struggle to become proficient in English, English language proficiency increases dramatically with each subsequent generation. For example, the Pew Hispanic Center surveyed 14,000 Latino adults on their ability to speak English (Hakimzadeh & Cohn, 2007). The study found that while only 23% of first-generation Latino immigrant adults reported speaking English very well, 88% of second-generation,

U.S.-born Latino adults reported speaking English very well, and 94% of subsequent U.S.-born generations of Latino adults reported speaking English very well.

Observations of different communities that come into contact with a majority language have shown that there is almost always a complete language shift within three generations (Fishman, 1989). In the typical scenario, the first generation speaks the native language, while the second generation is bilingual to some degree followed by the majority-language-speaking third generation. However, recently, an increasing number of language minority communities are undergoing a complete language shift within two generations with no intervening bilingual generation (Wiley, 2001). This accelerated shift creates major communication problems, as parents and children living in the same household do not understand each other. In Chapter 3, I will explain why the U.S. is sometimes referred to as a “language graveyard” and how the pressure to become monolingual in English has led many immigrant individuals and communities to abandon their native languages (Portes & Rumbaut, 2006).

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