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Spanish survives bilingual challenge.

Bilingual education programs for Spanish-speaking immigrants to the United States have elicited intense debate. One dispute pits the merits of teaching only English versus balancing English with Spanish to help preserve immigrants' native language and culture.

A study of Cuban and Mexican immigrants now finds that most learn English well after living in the United States for about 12 years, although much larger and faster language gains occur in those who receive formal English schooling. As many as 50 years after immigrating, these people show no loss of facility with Spanish and still speak their native tongue about half the time.

"Our data suggest that if you immigrate as an adolescent or young adult with a good grasp of Spanish, an English-immersion program will accelerate new-language learning and won't damage Spanish knowledge," asserts Harry P. Bahrick, a psychologist at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.

Bahrick and his colleagues tested 348 men and 453 women, most of whom had immigrated to the United States between age 10 and 26. Nearly equal numbers lived in one of three locales: Miami; El Paso, Texas; or Midwestern towns in which Hispanics are a small minority. Testing of Spanish and English language skills took place between 4 months and 50 years after immigration.

Overall, scores on Spanish text comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, and oral comprehension held largely stable across 50 years of U.S. residence. Agerelated declines on these measures appeared in the oldest participants.

Volunteers readily identified "anglicized" Spanish words and phrases, such as "factorias" and "correctar." The use of these hybrid terms by many immigrants apparently does not interfere with their understanding of either Spanish or English, Bahrick's team contends in the September JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY: GENERAL.

Scores on English tests improved rapidly during the first year after immigration. English vocabulary recognition and category generation -- measured by the ability to name examples of clothing and body parts -- showed substantial gains over the next 30 years for each of the geographical groups; performance on tests of oral comprehension and the ability to distinguish real from made-up words increased slightly in that same time period.

After statistically controlling for the amount of postimmigration English language usage and formal English education, those who immigrated at age 18 or older displayed more English knowledge than those who arrived before age 18. This finding contradicts the widespread assumption that the ability to learn a second language declines with age after passing through a critical period for language acquisition in early childhood, Bahrick argues.

Conceptual similarities between English and Spanish aided English learning in older immigrants, who had larger Spanish vocabularies to draw on, Bahrick theorizes. Participants citing the most prior Spanish schooling and displaying the largest Spanish vocabularies learned the most English, he points out.

Native Spanish speakers may find it easier to learn English than native speakers of tongues with few conceptual links to English, such as Japanese, the Ohio psychologist holds.

Other data suggest a critical stage for learning to pronounce speech sounds in a language occurs early in childhood, according to Bahrick, although it is not clear whether there exists a key period for learning how to arrange clauses and other linguistic elements.

"This new study has far-reaching implications for bilingual education," says Morton Ann Gernsbacher, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It should generate a lot of comment."
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Title Annotation:English language immersion programs do not interfere with ability to use native language
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 3, 1994
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