Saying 'Si' to English

Proposition 227: Teachers and parents debate why achievement results improved in the wake of new limits on bilingual education.

Of the many issues about which we write, one of the most controversial is the assimilation of immigrants into American culture and the English language. We favor a more open policy on immigration, which is one reason we opposed Proposition 187 in 1994. But we also favor encouraging immigrants to learn English as quickly as possible, and supported Proposition 227, the “English for the Children Initiative,” in 1998, in part to help students learn English and in part because the bilingual approach was not achieving its goals.

A recent investigation by the Register’s news section shows there is much to be encouraged about in the assimilation of Hispanic immigrants ? and to defuse some of the fear rhetoric surrounding immigration issues. Entitled, “Saying adios to Spanish?” the Dec. 19 story found, “The surge in immigration and births that will make Hispanics the largest single ethnic group in Orange County by 2016 will not strengthen the use of their native language here, researchers and linguists say. Spanish, as astounding as it sounds, is slowly dying in the United States.”

The Register story relied on a new report by the National Immigration Forum (web site: The report found, “Within 10 years of arriving in the United States, more than three out of four immigrants spoke English well or very well in 1990. Less than 2 percent of long-established 40-year-plus immigrants spoke no English at all.

“Immigrants are much better prepared in English than is commonly thought. In 1990, a majority (58.2 percent) of immigrants who had arrived in the previous five years reported that they already spoke English ‘well’ or ‘very well.’ Within 10 years of arrival, a little more than three-quarters (76.3 percent) of immigrants spoke English with high proficiency. Only 1.7 percent of long-established immigrants reported speaking no English at all in 1990.

“Taking a look at the second and third generations, virtually all children of immigrants spoke English proficiently. In most cases, the native language of immigrants is completely lost after a few generations in the United States.”

Such assimilation is occurring even in high immigrant areas, such as Santa Ana.

What we’re seeing, really, is the familiar story of immigrant families coming to America. Even when the parents speak the language at home, the pull of America’s culture and the economic importance of learning English are just too great to overcome. English is, after all, not just the language of our country, but the language of global commerce and of much writing on science, engineering and the Internet.

For public policy, we think the best route is that which has been followed in recent years: a combination of welcoming the immigrants while encouraging them to learn English.

The “bilingual education” fiasco of recent years led to children learning neither language – or other subjects – well.

It’s also worth remembering that Americans, even those who know English well, are not proficient enough in foreign languages. With Mexico and other Hispanic countries so close, the learning of Spanish should be encouraged as a second language for most children.

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