Massachusetts: Immigrant parents struggle to keep their children bilingual

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jul 25 12:57:17 UTC 2007

Immigrant parents struggle to keep their children bilingual
By Maria Sacchetti, Globe Staff  |  July 22, 2007

LAWRENCE -- After a lunch of hot dogs and rice, Jordy Berges blasted a
ball off the wall of the lunchroom at his mother's office, his
stomping grounds for the summer. "No juegues aquí," Yovanna Berges
scolded her 7-year-old son, telling him in Spanish to stop. "Sorry,"
he answered her, in English.

Berges, an immigrant from Peru, is growing accustomed to such
conversations with her son. She is struggling to raise him to speak
English and Spanish fluently, which might not seem like a big
challenge in the city with the highest proportion of Latinos in
Massachusetts. But researchers say Berges and immigrant parents
nationwide are confronting a difficult truth: Their children are
losing their languages.

According to research presented to Congress in May, even the children
of immigrants prefer to speak English by the time they are adults.
Rubén G. Rumbaut, a sociologist at the University of California at
Irvine, and his team of researchers looked at 5,700 adults in their
20s and 30s in Southern California from different generations to see
how long their language survived. A key finding centered on 1,900
American-born children of immigrants. The shift toward English among
them was swift: While 87 percent grew up speaking another language at
home, only 34 percent said they spoke it well by adulthood. And nearly
70 percent said they preferred to speak English.

"English wins, and it does so in short order," said Rumbaut, who
presented his findings to the US House Judiciary subcommittee on
immigration in May. "What we're talking about is a real phenomenon."
It is difficult for children to sustain their parents' languages amid
the tidal wave of American pop culture, including movies and
television, coupled with societal pressure to speak only English. Most
schools and communities do little to preserve bilingualism, Rumbaut
said. Even bilingual education programs, which Massachusetts voters
dismantled in 2002, were commonly designed to help students make the
transition to English-only classrooms.

Generations of immigrants have seen their languages fade, but Rumbaut
said the cost is higher now as businesses expand overseas, the United
States is more diverse, and national security agencies are clamoring
for people who speak foreign languages. The children themselves are
losing a skill that could give them an edge in the job market.

The erosion of language cuts across all backgrounds, Rumbaut said. In
his study, less than 25 percent of the US-born children of Chinese,
Korean, and Vietnamese immigrants said they spoke their parents'
languages well. Chinese is one of the languages President Bush
declared a priority for national security last year. Spanish was found
to survive longer, largely because Southern California is a
high-immigrant area and Spanish is ubiquitous on television and radio
and in newspapers.

Still, gaps emerged. Almost all second-generation Mexican- Americans
were raised speaking Spanish, but only 60 percent spoke it well by
early adulthood, and half preferred English. By the third generation,
barely 10 percent spoke Spanish well, according to the study; almost
all preferred English. While Rumbaut's study did not include
Massachusetts, he said it was even more likely that language loss
would occur here, because immigrants make up only 14 percent of the
population, about half the percentage in California, meaning that
children here have more exposure to English.

Until now, much of the debate over language has focused on the
successful campaigns in Massachusetts, California, and Arizona to end
bilingual education in public schools. Bilingual education was still
strong in California when the participants in Rumbaut's study were
young, but Rumbaut said English still prevailed. In 2002,
Massachusetts voters declared that all instruction must be in English,
except for children on waivers that allow them to take bilingual
classes and in a small number of schools that teach two languages
simultaneously. Those programs, for example, teach English and a
language such as Chinese, to native speakers of both.

Many Massachusetts parents and advocates say they are scrambling to
keep children's native languages from slipping away. In Boston,
advocates are pushing for more two-way schools. At Brockton High,
children of Cape Verdean and Brazilian immigrants sign up for
Portuguese lessons. Even Rosalie Porter, an author of the
Massachusetts initiative that dismantled bilingual education in
schools, said she favors expanding two-way schools as long as parents
want them. Berges, who is married to an immigrant from the Dominican
Republic, is raising Jordy in Lawrence, a majority Latino city, where
83 percent of schoolchildren speak another language at home.

Along Essex Street, one of the main thoroughfares, there are signs in
Spanish advertising a store selling "Ropa para Caballeros," or men's
clothing. Spanish-language newspapers abound. But her son is
fascinated by all things American, including Spiderman and hamburgers,
and his communication with her reflects that. The other day he
complained of a headache and said, "I have a pain in my cabeza." "I'm
afraid he's going to stop speaking Spanish," said Berges, an outreach
worker at the community service center run by Greater Lawrence
Community Action Council Inc.

Julia Sigalovsky of Sudbury, a scientist from Russia who arrived here
in 1989, said she was stunned when her 11-year-old son suddenly
refused to speak Russian after a few months in this country. When she
and her husband chatted in Russian at the supermarket, he was
mortified. "Speak English," he told them. With her second son, she
tried harder. She sang him lullabies in Russian, hired a
Russian-speaking babysitter, and inundated him with movies in her
native tongue, like the Russian version of "Winnie the Pooh." Now 14,
he hardly speaks Russian, either. At home, the parents speak Russian
and their sons respond in English. Even the family dog, answers to
English. "We speak two languages," Sigalovsky said. "It looks totally
insane for somebody who is watching."

While researchers and advocates agree that children of immigrants are
losing languages, they disagree about what to do about it. Porter,
though she favors two-way programs, said English should be the
priority of public schools. Parents can teach another language at
home, she said. "It is an economic advantage, but every single child
does not want to keep two languages," said Porter, who still speaks
the Italian she learned from her immigrant parents. "Some kids will
become professors of language. Some kids will become international
bankers. Some kids will not bother with any of that, and they'll
become successful in their own way."

Samuel Hurtado is coordinator of the Latino Education Action Network
in Boston, where 39 percent of students speak another language at
home, according to the state. Hurtado said the city should expand
two-way programs so that children can maintain both languages. Many
parents cannot afford luxuries such as tutors or trips abroad, said
Hurtado, who plans to teach his 1-year-old son English and Spanish at
home and enroll him in a Chinese immersion program in school. "We talk
so much about globalism, and we're missing a lot of opportunities for
our children to be raised bilingual," he said. "This is becoming more
of a class thing. When you go to the suburbs, parents get the value
that it is to be bilingual."

Some parents say they are more concerned their children learn English
than their native language. But Juanita Garcia of Methuen said she
wants her children to learn Spanish so they can speak to their
grandmother, who is visiting from Puerto Rico. One day last week, all
three generations went out for hamburgers. The parents and grandmother
sat at one table and spoke Spanish; the teenagers sat at another and
spoke English. "I want them to have two languages," Garcia said in
Spanish. "But all the time, they speak English."

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti at
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