Contradictory Language Values for Ethnic and Non-Ethnic Children in Schools,But English Still Dominates

Despite nativist fears of losing English as the dominant language, studies continually prove that English is the preferred language among new generations of immigrants.  Immigrants are the fastest growing student population in US schools, and half of them don’t speak English fluently (Calderon, Slavin, Sanchez, 2011: 103).  Schools are the site of most of the language controversy because of their historical role of socializing children in the American mainstream, making bilingual education a topic of controversy.  Lacking a common culture or common history, the use of English became the essential part of being “American.” By the 1920s language loyalty oaths from children in schools was commonplace to reinforce English dominance (Portes and Schauffler, 1994: 642).  Furthermore, academics believed bilingualism caused confusion and development problems, which has since been refuted (Portes and Schauffler, 1994: 643).

Assimilation studies seek to measure patterns of language loss among immigrants over time.  Language assimilation among the second generation varies with length of residence, geographical location, strength of the ethnic enclave, and socio-economic status (Portes and Schauffler, 1994: 645).  Although ethnic enclaves influence greater retention of the parent language, the general pattern across many ethnic groups in segmented assimilation studies is a preference for speaking English.  The first generation learns enough to get by economically, the second generation will continue to speak their parent language in the home, and the third generation will most likely be monolingual English (Portes and Schauffler, 1994: 643).

In their work Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America, Ruben Rumbaut and Alejandro Portes compile a collection of data for segmented assimilationist studies on Mexican, Cuban, Haitian, Vietnamese, and other ethnic groups.  Part of each study tracked language proficiency and preference from 1992-1995.  In all cases, English language proficiency and preference increased among second and third generations (Rumbaut and Portes, 2001).  Each community differed in rates of proficiency due to different social and economic barriers and ties to an ethnic enclave.  Interestingly, the Cuban community in Miami had the highest rates of bilingualism and Spanish language retention, as well as 95 percent preference for speaking English in everyday communication (Perez, 2001: 115).  For some groups, speaking English is associated with higher self-esteem and better performance in school among children on immigrants.  Language is especially important for children in the school setting.  Immigrant parents often push their children to learn and perfect English because it is associated with success (Espiritu and Wolf, 2001: 174).

Ethnic languages have the fastest rates of disappearance than any other country (Portes and Schauffler, 1994).  Today, many immigrants already come equipped with English skills or are quick to try and adapt linguistically.  Depending on class and location, it is easier for some groups to retain their parent language, and studies have shown the cognitive value of bilingualism.  Yet language remains a controversial issue in school policy and supporting English Language Learners.  There is a double standard for immigrant students to drop their ethnic language, while native upper and middle class families encourage their children to learn Latin, French, or German (Portes and Schauffler, 1994: 643).  There is no clear policy for state school districts on identifying or instructing ELL students, and few teachers are trained on how to teach them (Calderon, Slavin, Sanchez, 2011: 103).  On the other hand, public and private schools have foreign language graduation requirements for students and bilingualism is highly valued.  This difference in expectations and treatment between immigrant and ethnic children and native children of language in schools and in society should continue to be addressed.  The studies mentioned above show that bilingualism in schools and language retention in the community does not negatively affect English preference.  Although the number of Spanish and other foreign language speakers are moving to the US, English is not in danger of being lost.



Calderon, Margarita, Robert Slavin, and Marta Sanchez. 20011. “Effective Instruction for English Learners.” The Future of Children. 21(1): 103-127.

Perez, Lisandro. 2001. “Growing Up in Cuban Miami.” Pp. 91-123 in Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America. New York, University of California Press.


Portes, Alejandro, and Richard Schauffler. 1994. “Language and the second generation: Bilingualism yesterday and today.” International Migration Review. 28(4): 640-661.

Rumbaut, Ruben, and Alejandro Portes. 2001. Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America. New York, University of California Press.