The La Times reports that the Cal State system is kicking out kids that can’t pass remedial Math & English. Check this:
…The most common problem is critical reading skills, and Cal State officials attribute that partly to the large number of students from immigrant households in which English is not the primary language.
In at least one way, Hoang fits the profile of students who struggle in English reading proficiency. Although English is her first language, she speaks Vietnamese and Chinese at home with her Asian immigrant parents.
If you can’t pass remedial English-but you say that it is your “first language,” then: either you are a moron who shouldn’t be in college, or English really isn’t your first language and you should go take some courses in junior college.
I have personal experience with this. My family would speak English now and then when I was a little kid in Bangladesh, but I basically came to this country hardly knowing a word when I was 5. I was fluent in 2 years (passable in 6 months) . Learning a language isn’t that hard when you’re a little kid unless you are chronically stupid, in which case you shouldn’t be going to college. Either these were kids thrust through bilingual education, or they went to crappy public schools that didn’t teach jack and socialized only with their own ethnic group and didn’t develop cross-cultural English skills (there are plenty of cases where people talk a certain way with their own folk, but in the wider world use respectable speech patterns). My parents never spoke English at home, but I knew what to yell when I was beating the shit out of the freckled-faced Irish kid that lived down the street. I didn’t have any brown guarding my back, and there wasn’t a posse of Bengali kids I would run around with making my own hybrid English that won’t get you a 200 on the SATs. Thank god(s) for me. You do some sink or swim with kids, and they’ll swim. It’s in our genes.
Well, if you’re 20 years old and in this position of having to learn real English (when I mean real I mean Tom Brokaw type lingua franca, not Singlish, Spanglish or whatever else languages/dialects are spoken within communities)-tough, you have to go to junior college and learn real English that can at least pass the mark of USA TODAY. Assimilation takes time, and if you are expecting kids out of culturally isolated ghettos or barrios to be able to master subjects which require an understanding of the general colloquial you are being naive and setting them up for failure.
 Bengali does not have gendered pronouns, so it took me two years to figure out that girls should be addressed with “she” rather than “he”-that was my great stumbling block until the end of 1st grade.
Diane adds: A personal contribution, an observation, and a question. My parents both spoke another language (Yiddish) at home, until they were six*, when they went to school and were simply expected to learn English. Fast. They were totally surrounded by other Yiddish-speakers. Yet they learned English in school. Fast. Discuss. (My own speculation is that (a) the children of the immigrants–not all Jewish, this was the case with the children of all the other immigrants as well–were simply expected to learn the language of the dominant society, no excuses. I also speculate that although they were living in poverty-stricken ethnic ghettoes, they were actually less ghettoized than today’s Spanish-speaking migrants.)
Observation. As readers of my blog may know, I spent a couple of years in Israel. My Hebrew never got terribly good, because I was always able to sell myself on my English-language skills. This was during the time of the airlift of the Ethiopians to Israel. At one point I took a Hebrew-language course in a desert town. Next to the school was an absorption-center which was full of Ethiopians. A large group of Ethiopians started out around the same time as we did. Quite a contrast: my group were all Western university graduates, many with advanced degrees. They were penniless refugees from a war zone.
One peculiarity of this absorption center was that it wasn’t isolated (many of them are, arising from a totally mistaken notion that immigrants ought to be “eased” into a new society), it was in the middle of an apartment block inhabited by Israelis, so the Ethiopian kids played with natives. After four months, the children were chattering away merrily in near-native Hebrew. While we Western-educated smartasses were still struggling with a still impenetrable, utterly foreign language.
The key to both stories is isolation and its converse, social mixing.
Question: does anyone think that this story has any relevance to language acquistion?
*In those days there was no kindergarten.