Poll: Immigrants Value Speaking English

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 22, 2003 3 min read
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Immigrants are no more likely than the general public to support bilingual education in public schools—though some immigrant groups are more supportive of the controversial approach to instruction than others are.

The results of the survey, “Now That I’m Here,” are available from Public Agenda Online. A copy of the complete survey may be downloaded for free until Feb. 11.

That is one finding from a survey of immigrants released last week by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan opinion-research group based in New York City. Only about a third of immigrants responding—32 percent—said students should be able to take some courses in their native languages in the nation’s public schools. Sixty-three percent said that all public school classes should be taught only in English. Immigrants’ responses mirrored those of the general public in a 1999 survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University.

Mexican and Caribbean immigrants are more supportive of bilingual education than Europeans and East Asians, but a majority of each subgroup surveyed still favors classes only in English.

Forty-five percent of Mexican immigrants said that students should be able to take some classes in their native language, while 51 percent said classes should be only in English.

The findings are not surprising, said Patricia Gándara, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis, and a supporter of bilingual education.

“Immigrants don’t have a lot more information than the general public about the most effective way to learn both subject matter and a second language,” she said. “The problem is they don’t understand how just immersing children in English impedes their learning in other things.”

In bilingual education, students are taught some subjects in their native languages while they are learning English.

Public Agenda based its findings on a telephone survey of 1,002 foreign-born residents of the United States conducted in October and November of last year. The margin of error for the survey overall is 3 percentage points, but greater when responses are compared across subgroups.

The survey shows that immigrants believe learning English is very important. Nearly nine in 10 respondents said it’s hard to get a good job or do well in the United States without learning English. About two-thirds said that “the U.S. should expect all immigrants who don’t speak English to learn it.”

A sizable share of the respondents—37 percent—said they already had a good command of English when they came to the U.S. Of the immigrant groups surveyed, Caribbean and European immigrants were most likely to say they spoke English before they arrived. Seven percent of Mexican immigrants said they spoke English when they came to this country.

Most respondents reported having a good command of English now. Sixty-one percent say their English was either “good” or “excellent.”

More immigrants are favorable than unfavorable on the question of whether public schools do a “good” job of teaching children English as quickly as possible. Thirty-nine percent said schools do an “excellent” or “good” job. Twenty-seven percent said they do a “fair” or “poor” job. More than a third of respondents— 35 percent—said they “don’t know enough to say.”

Christine H. Rossell, a political science professor at Boston University, said that the survey results show that because so many immigrants do learn English, “we don’t need to worry that bilingual education will prevent immigrants from learning English.”

She believes sheltered English immersion is more effective than bilingual education, however, and supported the fall’s ballot initiative to curtail bilingual education in the state. Still, she said, “you’re not going to find me saying that kids don’t learn English” in bilingual education.


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