Report Details Long Road to
Los Angeles Times
February 14, 2004
Immigrant students from nine ethnic groups average from 3.6 to 7.4 years to
become fluent, a state study finds.
California students who speak Spanish as their first language take nearly seven
years to master English, lagging behind most other immigrant children, according
to a state report released this week.
Spanish speakers take an average of 6.7 years to become fluent, compared with
3.6 years for Mandarin speakers, who take the shortest time among nine major
language groups, the report by the legislative analyst's office found. Hmong-speaking
students take 7.4 years, the longest of the groups.
"Regardless of the language, it's taking much longer to transition kids to
fluency than people expect," said Rob Manwaring, a policy analyst who
administered the report. "We're suggesting that there are kids who can go all
the way through kindergarten to 12th grade and still be considered English
The report was based on two years of results from the California English
Language Development Tests, which assessed proficiency in listening, speaking,
reading and writing for 1.3 million children learning English in 2001 and 2002.
The report did not suggest any reasons for the differences among ethnic groups.
However, Rachel Lotan, a professor of education at Stanford University who
focuses on linguistically diverse classrooms, attributed the time gaps to
Poor children who come from families that are less educated will have a harder
time learning another language, she said. "Some of the kids are kids who were
born in this country and kept in linguistic ghettos," she said.
Of the 1.3 million students studied, 83% were Spanish speakers. In addition to
Mandarin and Hmong, the other major languages were Korean (four years to
fluency), Cantonese (4.7 years), Vietnamese (five years), Pilipino (five years),
Armenian (five years), and Cambodian (6.4 years).
Since the passage of Proposition 227 six years ago, state law has required that
students be taught primarily in English unless parents opt for bilingual
education by signing a waiver, and educators have struggled over how best to
teach non-English speakers without bilingual methods.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, nearly 42% of its 740,000 students
are not completely fluent in English, and more than 90% of them speak Spanish,
said school board President Jose Huizar.
He said the lengths of time it takes for youngsters to master English, as
described in the report, is much too long. "It's unacceptable that this is where
we are," Huizar said. "We could be doing much better."
Huizar supported a proposal last year that helped direct $20 million in federal
funds to the district to better train teachers working with immigrant students
and to accelerate youngsters' learning of English.
The goal now is for elementary students to become fluent within five years, and
for middle and high school students to become fluent within four semesters, said
Rita Caldera, director of the district's language acquisition branch.