On Learning English: The Importance of School Context, Immigrant Communities, and the Racial Symbolism of the English Language in Understanding the Challenge for Immigrant Adolescents (Working Paper #125)

Dr. Carmina Brittain, Center for Comparative Immigration Studies

Abstract: The immigrant student population in American public schools is an ever-growing demographic force, especially in some states such as California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois (Ruizde- Velasco & Fix, 2000). This concentration of immigrants in these states is the result of the networking process of migration that mobilizes newcomers to areas where more established immigrants from the same country (co-nationals) are located (Cornelius, 1998; Portes, 1999; Valdes, 2001). This mobilization produces a significant information flow across borders as established immigrants share their experiences with potential immigrants in their countries of origin via interpersonal communications (Cornelius, 1998; Mahler, 1998; Menjivar, 2000; Brittain, 2002). One kind of information that immigrants share in these transnational conversations is about learning the English language (Brittain, 2002).

Using the Contextual Interaction Framework (Cortes, 1986), this article examines how adolescent immigrants from China and Mexico shared information about learning English in American schools. Framed as advice to their co-national peers, these English Messages reflected how these immigrant students perceived their chances for success in acquiring English skills. While both groups emphasized the need to learn English, the Chinese students advised their co-nationals that the English language barrier would eventually be conquered, while the Mexican adolescents advised that learning English was hard. These attitudes and experiences were framed by contextual factors in the school, community, and peer groups. Further, these students talked about the racial symbolism of learning English. Some of these immigrants framed English as the language of “White” people, a group that they perceived felt superior to their own ethnic group. Therefore, for these immigrant students, learning English became the representation of assimilation but not necessarily acceptance and equal participation into the U.S. society.

Working Paper #125»