Report Details Long Road to English-Language Fluency
Los Angeles Times
February 14, 2004 Erika Hayasaki,

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 language learners."

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 socioeconomic backgrounds.

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.