When 14-year-old Aimee Johnson arrived in the United States from Norway in 1960, she felt like she had landed on the moon.
She was the only non-English-speaking student at Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo.
But within six weeks, the shy teen-ager was helping native English speakers on their spelling exams, attending school dances and making A’s. Literate in Norwegian, she learned English in a snap.
“If you don’t have a choice,” said Johnson, who now lives in Orinda, “you will then reach out in every way possible to try to learn that language.”
Many immigrants such as Johnson, who learned English in another era,
want California voters to end bilingual education in public schools by passing Proposition 227. They hope the state will turn back the clock to a time when immigrants learned English by being taught only in English.
After all, it worked for them.
But historians say California is a vastly different place demographically than it was in 1968, 1948 or 1928. Thirty years ago, immigration contributed 10 percent of the state’s growth, a figure that now is about 50 percent,
according to Rand, a California-based think tank. In 1960, one in every 10 residents of Los Angeles County was an immigrant; now the figure is one in three.
Experts say there’s little difference in the pace at which immigrants learn English. In fact the misconception that immigrants aren’t learning English may simply be a function of the number of immigrants now in California and the educational gap between newcomers and natives.
“Immigrants today are doing a great job of acquiring conversational English, the same as they did then,” said Stephen Krashen, a linguist and professor of education at the University of Southern California. “But this is no longer good enough.”
Krashen and other experts say there is a growing pressure on immigrants to be fully proficient in English to escape the agricultural and service sectors that offer low-paying jobs with little hope for economic advancement.
Times have changed
Due to restrictive immigration laws, the tide of newcomers entering the United States slowed dramatically between 1924 and 1965, making immigrants,
including Johnson, the exception, not the rule.
“We tend to think of the period between 1924 to 1965 as the norm,
but really that’s the abnormal period,” said Jon Gjerde, an immigration historian at UC-Berkeley. “But we use that as a benchmark for how things ought to be and should have been.”
After the 1965 immigration act flung open the doors to a bigger slice of the world, California’s immigrant population started to soar. The law,
also known as the Brothers and Sisters Act, allowed immigrants worldwide to join family members in the United States; it also ended a quota system that favored northern Europeans and virtually excluded Asians.
The law sparked immigration from Latin America that later boomed with the Mexican oil crisis, and economic and political turmoil in Central America during the 1970s and 1980s. Immigrants came from different countries, but many shared a common language — Spanish.
In the United States, they found cities where they could live, work,
play and study in their native language. Today, about 1.4 million of the 5.6 million public school children in California are limited English speakers;
about 80 percent of the students with limited English skills speak Spanish.
Historians say immigrants in the late 20th century actually share a common history with immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century. These European immigrants — who came in waves from the 1840s through 1910 — worked in urban factories and shopped in stores where their native languages were the norm. Some even attended bilingual schools or schools where English wasn’t spoken
Lenora Timm, a linguist and anthropologist from UC-Davis, said her father was a German immigrant who grew up speaking his native language in Toledo,
Ohio, before World War I.
“He remembers when World War I came along, the sinking of the Lusitania and the tremendous anti-German sentiment,” Timm explained. “They almost stopped speaking German overnight.”
Researchers say immigrants today need to know English to succeed economically.
Historians and economists say the expectations for immigrant children have grown tremendously over the past century. Completing high school used to be an accomplishment of the elite; now it’s a minimal requirement for economic success. Immigrants with few English skills once could find high-paying manufacturing jobs, but now are more likely to be stuck in low-paying service or agricultural jobs.
“At the beginning of the 20th century, you had lots of assembly-line jobs where people hacked up meat or did things over and over again,”
said Phil Martin, an economist at UCLA. “You could use people right off the boat.”
Martin said employers wanted their workers to speak different languages so they would be too divided to unionize. He said the biggest difference now is the premium on communication skills.
Georges Vernez, the director of Rand’s Center for Research on Immigration Policy, said the relative gap in wealth and education between immigrants and native-born Americans has widened over the years, drawing more attention to the English skills and educational performance of immigrants.
“You probably can function not knowing a language in any society,”
Vernez said. “The point is whether you have the same job opportunities and economic opportunities if you are not proficient in English, and I think the answer is probably no.”
A different experience
Not all immigrants want to turn back the clock. Their memories of being among the few immigrants in English-only classrooms are painful at best.
Elisa Duarte came to the United States from Mexico with her family in 1947. But unlike Johnson, she doesn’t have good memories of being submerged in English without any special help, a “sink or swim” practice that was ruled unconstitutional with the Lau v. Nichols court decision in 1974.
Duarte came legally with her mother and two younger brothers to join her father, who was a coal miner in Colorado. When the 12-year-old enrolled in elementary school in Oak Creek, Colo., she was immediately placed in a first-grade classroom with her 6-year-old brother because she didn’t know English.
“It was traumatic and humiliating,” recalled Duarte, a 62-year-old Oakley resident. “It didn’t work for me. I sat there for a whole semester,
but I wasn’t there.
“My body was there but my mind wasn’t.”
Duarte, who is now an instructor at City College in San Francisco, refused to go to school until administrators placed her with students her own age in an eighth-grade classroom. As one of the few immigrants in the Oak Creek public schools, Duarte said she graduated from high school with only a basic understanding of English.
She said her limited English skills made it difficult to get a job and at the time, she felt college was out of the question. She didn’t become fluent in English until she moved to California in 1952 and started watching cartoons on television.
Although Duarte later earned her college degree and went on to a successful teaching career, she laments the difficult journey.
“It doesn’t make any difference if you keep hearing a language,”
said Duarte, “if you don’t understand what’s being said.”
Andrea Lampros covers education and Proposition 227. You can reach her at 925-943-8155 or P.O. Box 5088, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.