Poll: Immigrants Value Speaking English
By Mary Ann Zehr
January 22, 2003
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
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