When simple solutions and anecdotes collide with language facts

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Jun 29 10:34:31 UTC 2007

The following is a response to Gov. Schwartzenegger's comments about
language learning that appeared on lgpolicy-list a while back.

 Download the original

When simple solutions and anecdotes collide with language facts

Invoking simple solutions to complex problems is an easy and effective
rhetorical device.   No need to do research, check facts, consider
complexities – just assert the solution and, as long as it is close enough
to what people already believe, the argument is won.  It works even better
if you can add a personal anecdote.  This was the case with California Gov.
Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent suggestion that Spanish-speaking families
turn off their Spanish television programs and watch English-language TV
instead.  Unfortunately, the governor's suggestion, based on his own
subjective experience, belies a number of misconceptions about language
demographics, second language acquisition, and pedagogy.

>>From media discussions, one would think that Latino communities are
Spanish-only language ghettos where no one is willing to learn English.
However, the facts are otherwise.  More than 70 percent of Spanish speakers
in the US are also fluent in English and a very large number of US Latinos
can only speak English.

Those who do not attain fluency in English are almost exclusively
first-generation immigrants who came to the US as adults.  Anyone who has
tried to learn a second language as an adult knows how difficult it is.
Nevertheless, even these first-generation Spanish-speakers are learning
English in greater numbers than has ever been the case in our history as an
immigrant nation, and many of their children are learning little or no
Spanish. (Readers may have witnessed a Spanish-speaking mother talking to
her child in Spanish, while the child answers in English.)  Research shows
that the loss of an immigrant language used to take three generations but
that it is now common for a transition from Spanish to English to happen in
two.  The perception that Spanish-speakers won't speak English is simply
false – they do and they do so faster than earlier immigrants did.

This is not to say that there are no problems.  California does have a large
number of limited-English proficiency students who struggle to pass the
English Language Arts (ELA) section of the state high school exit exam
(CAHSEE), which was first required for graduation in 2006.  These students
are typically first generation Latinos, often arriving in their teens.  They
quickly become fluent in spoken English, but may fail to develop the English
needed in academic contexts because acquiring those reading and writing
skills can take more than five years.  The evaluators of the 2006 CAHSEE
found that "recently enrolled students performed less well."  Students in
the 10th grade, who had enrolled since 2000,  "had significantly lower ELA
passing rates (below 40 percent) compared to students who had been enrolled
for longer periods."  This percentage decreased to 30 and 15 percent for
students who enrolled in 2004 and 2006, respectively.  Interestingly, these
same students* *had less difficulty with the math test; between 40 and 50
percent of them passed it.  Clearly, recent arrivals are capable students
but many run out of time before they can learn enough English to pass the
exam upon which their diploma hinges, despite having passed all other state
and course requirements.

The issues are complex and are, unfortunately, not amenable to simple
solutions. The journalist who asked the Governor's opinion about the CAHSEE
results was posing a serious question about a major problem confronting
immigrant adolescents which turning off their parents' *telenovelas* will
not solve.  Because these students are generally fluent in English, they are
already watching English-language TV.  Although watching TV may help in
acquiring some aspects of spoken language (e.g. vocabulary and
pronunciation), programs like American Idol (or even Terminator movies) will
be of little help in developing the literacy skills needed to pass the ELA
portion of the CAHSEE.  In fact, wouldn't it be better for *all* students to
turn off the TV altogether?  The governor's suggestion is an unhelpful and
flip response to a difficult pedagogical situation.

Rarely do politicians think to consult language researchers when dealing
with linguistic problems.  The governor seems to think that his recollection
of his own personal experience with learning English is enough evidence to
know how to deal with complex issues of second language acquisition and
literacy among poor immigrants under very different circumstances.  However,
we still harbor hope that research and facts might occasionally trump a
facile appeal to personal anecdotes, so often invoked in political

Ana Celia Zentella, Professor
Ethnic Studies
University of California, San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive -0522
La Jolla, CA 92093
tel: 858 534 8128
fax: 858 534 8194

John Moore is a professor and chair of the department of linguistics and

Ana Celia Zentella is a professor in the department of ethnic studies, both
at the University of California, San Diego.

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