Spanish Survives Bilingual Challenge

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, September 3, 1994 | Go to article overview

Spanish Survives Bilingual Challenge


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Bilingual education programs for Spanish-speaking immigrants to the United States have elicited intense debate. One dispute pits the merits of teaching only English versus balancing English with Spanish to help preserve immigrants' native language and culture.

A study of Cuban and Mexican immigrants now finds that most learn English well after living in the United States for about 12 years, although much larger and faster language gains occur in those who receive formal English schooling. As many as 50 years after immigrating, these people show no loss of facility with Spanish and still speak their native tongue about half the time.

"Our data suggest that if you immigrate as an adolescent or young adult with a good grasp of Spanish, an English-immersion program will accelerate new-language learning and won't damage Spanish knowledge," asserts Harry P. Bahrick, a psychologist at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.

Bahrick and his colleagues tested 348 men and 453 women, most of whom had immigrated to the United States between age 10 and 26. Nearly equal numbers lived in one of three locales: Miami; El Paso, Texas; or Midwestern towns in which Hispanics are a small minority. Testing of Spanish and English language skills took place between 4 months and 50 years after immigration.

Overall, scores on Spanish text comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, and oral comprehension held largely stable across 50 years of U.S. residence. Agerelated declines on these measures appeared in the oldest participants.

Volunteers readily identified "anglicized" Spanish words and phrases, such as "factorias" and "correctar." The use of these hybrid terms by many immigrants apparently does not interfere with their understanding of either Spanish or English, Bahrick's team contends in the September JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY: GENERAL. …

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