Forty years ago, I was assigned to teach “Open Enrollment English” at the City College of the City University of New York. The course was classified as remedial, and credits were non-additive.
Walking sprightly and empty-headed into the class, I found one-third of them were off the boat from Hong Kong, one-third off the boat from San Juan, and most of the other third off boats from Palermo, Porto and Gdansk (remember: this was 1970). The first writing assignment produced three different versions of English, and I had no idea where they came from -- or how.
The Chinese guys in the back row were always heads down, thumbing through dictionaries. What I now know to be their lexical transitions were pretty good, but there wasn’t a preposition to be found in their papers. No kidding!
The girls from Gdansk showed hard silent faces, splattered their pages with diacritics, but left no trace of articles. No kidding! I half-understood the guys from San Juan jabbering in Spanglish and felt good about it, but they wrote that way, too. Most of what I learned about all this happened much later. I walked into that class as a thorough naif.
A scan of the usual panic headlines of the past decade will easily turn up “perfect storms,” “tsunamis,” and other dire weather patterns lying in the future of higher education. Some of these are covers for race/ethnicity mix change, others for the deleterious effects of app addictions, and still others for the rise of economic inequalities. I have a shelf for the publications and reports bearing such Jeremiadic news and threats. It’s labeled, “the usual,” and includes more sophisticated but even darker analyses of “separation,” “undereducation,” “stopped progress,” and “crises” strewn about like dead flower petals.
However well-intentioned, these analyses have the effect of telling large groups of higher education students and potential students that they are lacking something, or that “our future would be brighter if only we addressed something you are lacking.”
Really? One numbs at such absence of self-reflection: the writers simply don’t listen carefully to what they are saying between the words. Had they configured the population in a different way, they might have toned down the damning that seeps through their lines.
I am not offering another “usual” today. I am not a siren of ominous effects. Rather, I want to detail a different set of populations that were with us in that 1970 classroom, are with us more now (and even increasing in the future), and that require analyses and guidance in a key other than that offered by the storm literature.
We are going to use languages, not race or family income, as a template. And we’re not assuming that U.S. resident students from non-English-dominant backgrounds are de facto remedial and bound for failure. In fact, quite the reverse.
But that depends on a variety of factors, most of which the research, policy and pundit establishment in higher education has not bothered to map. We will know better what to do if we know more about the experiences and conditions through which these distinct populations cross the line between fluency in conversational English and the literacy constitutive to the reading and writing of English.
“Ways” and “extent,” in turn, depend on the language at issue, and the intensity of language conditioning, environment and maintenance. The Chinese guys at CCNY in 1970 didn’t know from diacritics; the Polish girls were loaded with prepositions. Such belated knowledge is a metaphor that opens a key door to assist advisers and faculty naifs such as I once was. If I had known better and more about my students’ language crossings, I could have done better by them.
This nation of immigrants enfolds roughly 350 languages spoken by 60.5 million people. Among those whose dominant language is other than English, we know native speakers of Spanish are the largest group (37.5 million), with recent Spanish-speaking immigrants more likely to be monolingual Spanish than those long-established in the U.S., e.g., from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and, in the Southwest, descendants of the conquistadores who have been here since the 16th century.
But in addition to Spanish, over 1 million U.S. residents speak each of the following languages (in order of frequency): Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, French (not Creole, but including immigrants from Francophone West Africa, who may also speak a native African language, e.g. from Senegal, Waloof), Korean, and German. Nearly 1 million speak either Arabic or Russian. In addition, we have between 500,000 and 900,000 speaking (in order) Creole French, Italian, Portuguese, Hindi, and Polish, and notable (though smaller) recent immigrant groups coming initially as refugees, speaking Hmong, Serbo-Croatian, Laotian, Cambodian, Farsi, and Somali. Hardly “immigrant,” but notable, are the 169,000 speakers of Navajo, the largest home language group by far among Native Americans.
More important for our purposes than the number of speakers is the proportion of each language group that the American Community Survey (ACS) has determined as not speaking English at all or not speaking English well. For the record, the top 10 ratios, by native language, are:
Seven of these are Asian languages, and, with the exception of Vietnamese and Spanish, all use scripts other than the Roman alphabet of English (I am including Hmong among these, even though some contend that, historically, there was no written language that could be called “Hmong”). Putting these together with 2010 Census data, that means there are 9.7 million native speakers of Spanish and 2.1 million native speakers of the other 9 languages all living in the United States and not speaking English. The ACS does not provide data on reading or writing English, but one can reasonably assume that the list of 20-plus-percent proportion of limited-English-language populations, by native language, would be a lot longer and more diverse if ACS included orthographic considerations in reading and writing. Literacy, to repeat, is distinct from audio/lingual fluency. We are thinking of the children in these groups and of these groups, and of the magnitude and linguistic elements of generational literacy shift in each language group.
The overall data necessary to estimate what higher education is seeing and will see are fragmented and difficult. The oldest rigorous data on the proportion of non-English dominant speakers in the 12th grade and teetering on entrance to higher education are from the National Center for Education Statistics’ High School & Beyond/Sophomore Cohort longitudinal study: 5 percent. But a body of 12th-graders does not capture what higher education will eventually count, so we need some further and more contemporary guidance. The children of current non-English dominant households entered the U.S. at different stages of life (including being born in the U.S.), entered school at different times, and had to learn English as a fulcrum of their schooling. When they arrive in higher education, then, they are not wholly bereft of the world’s default second language. The basic figures from the NCES Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal study of 2003-2009, which covers entering students of all ages, excluding foreign students in the U.S. on visas, are as follows:
Children of Immigrants
English Not Primary Language
All entering students
Dividing these groups by age at entrance to higher education (the most significant demographic variable in the standard universe of such variables) does not change these proportions much at all. The dividing age year used was 20. And since the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition tells us that the number of English language learners enrolled in ELL courses in pre-collegiate education was 5.3 million in 2005-6 (and 5.3 million does not account for all second language students), the challenge to higher education to mark the extent of their participation and state of their English language use eight years later is even greater than what these data -- reflecting a considerable increase of the proportion of non-English dominant students since the 5 percent of the High School & Beyond/Sophomore Cohort as seniors in 1982 -- say of 2003.
These are not small proportions of the entering postsecondary population, and their progress and degree completion rates (lower than those of native speakers of English by roughly 6 percent) may well be influenced by their language status and various aspects of their language histories. Languages obviously differ, and differ in terms of their similarities to English, in terms of morphology, orthography, and phonology. Non-English-speaking environments also differ in terms of saturation of second language media, Internet use by immigrants, and concentrations of commerce serving local populations. Too, language maintenance traditions vary for each of these immigrant groups. We have a history of language maintenance dating to German-speaking immigrants in the Midwest in the mid-19th century. Unless countries are officially bilingual or trilingual (Canada, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, and Switzerland, for noted examples in the West), you don’t see much formal language maintenance elsewhere. How much we still practice, and in what forms, is something our current second language students in higher education will tell us if and when we get to interview them with a consortium of teams advised by second language acquisition experts (see below).
Most importantly, some immigrant cultures and their languages are concentrated in very specific regions of the United States. Institutions of higher education that serve these geographic areas are thus more likely than others to witness enrollments of specific language background groups. For example, the greater San Francisco area is more likely to provide for students from Tagalog-speaking backgrounds; greater Minneapolis-St. Paul for Somali and Hmong speakers; San Jose and Houston for Vietnamese; greater Miami for Luzo-Portuguese (Brazilian); the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles and Flushing in Queens for two very different socioeconomic groups of Chinese; Russians in Brooklyn; Wayne County in Michigan for Arabic speakers; and while they are located everywhere, particularly concentrated populations of Spanish speakers in South Texas and the Central Valley of California.
Why is this geo-demography important? Because when you get in your car to gather information that just might help folks get further down the education thruway, it helps to know precisely where you’re going.
In this case, I propose, we can find captured populations among students from specific second language backgrounds who are recent enrollees in colleges and community colleges in the geo-demographic target areas, and ask them a series of questions on family language background and use, and on their own experiences moving through the chain from language 1 to language 2. One needs college partners in those areas, of course, both to identify the students of interest and to urge them to take an online survey consuming no more than 30 minutes. Do we know whether sufficient numbers of students can be found to answer our questions and begin to provide guidance? No, but our chances are better with geo-demographic targeting.
I’ve got a survey for first- and second-year college students ready to roll to a second language acquisition review panel. It seeks to document features and dominances of language use in the student’s household, peer groups, and work environments, the student’s language transition experiences in high school and early college months, first language maintenance, and focuses on areas of linguistic friction between first language and English.
What we have learned from the self-assessment forms of Europass (designed to enhance cross-border mobility in the labor market) is that voluntary respondents (and there have been about 600,000 in Europe to date who have completed “language passports”) are very honest and forthcoming about what they can do and how well in languages other than that from which they emerged, in what environments they learned second and third languages, and how.
We are less interested in language 1 to language 2 issues such as transfer, semantic judgments, code switching, and speech registers since we would not be asking questions on these well-trod paths of second language acquisition research.
At a time when immigration policy is on the front desks of legislators, we are more interested in story lines, promising and limiting, and commonalities as well as differences by language group. The end product would be a portrait that every institution serving similar students can use, for the benefit of future students, and not merely in “Open Enrollment English” classes, either. Those students, as I learned in 1970, are not remedial.
Clifford Adelman is a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
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