[evol-psych] Factors controlling immigrants' second language ability identified
- FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 31 JANUARY 2000 (31 JANUARY 2000 GMT)
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Factors controlling immigrants' second language ability identified
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- If 6-year old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez were to settle
permanently in the United States, by the time he reached adulthood, he would
relate his horrific ordeal in fluent English. Elian's fluency primarily would
be a result of sociological opportunities (length of residence in the United
States and educational attainment) and maturational constraints tied to age
at onset of language learning -- in his case, as a young child.
So says Gillian Stevens, the author of a new study of second language (L2)
acquisition among foreign-born residents in the United States. Proficiency in
a second language among adults is strongly related to age at immigration,
said Stevens, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois. That was
the "overarching conclusion" of her study.
"Age at immigration streams immigrants into different life paths, which have
strong consequences for their levels of proficiency in English later in
life," said Stevens, who used 1990 U.S. census data to investigate the
relationship between age at onset of second language learning and
self-reported levels of English-language proficiency among foreign-born
adults in the United States. Results of the study were published in a recent
issue of Language in Society.
Previous research by sociologists has attributed immigrants' acquisition of
English strictly to social and demographic factors -- opportunities and
motivations tied to age at entry into a new country, while linguists doing
similar research have argued that L2 acquisition is governed by maturational
constraints that may be biologically based. Stevens found that both sets of
factors play a role in immigrants' second language acquisition.
Study respondents ranged in age from 18 to 40, and on average had been in the
United States for a dozen years. More than half completed at least one year
of schooling in the United States; more than half were married, some 20
percent of them living with a native-born spouse. Most of the residents were
employed, and one-fourth were enrolled in school at the time of the census.
Stevens found that contrary to conventional wisdom, children do not
"anglicize" the household and teach or introduce their parents to English. On
the other hand, immigrants with native-born spouses report higher levels of
proficiency in English than those who are not married or those who are
married to a foreign-born spouse who shares the respondent's non-English
Immigrants from Spanish-language countries reported lower levels of
proficiency in English than immigrants from other non-anglophone countries.
More highly educated immigrants reported higher levels of proficiency in
English than less educated immigrants. Foreign-born adults who completed at
least some schooling in the United States were 1.5 times as likely to report
a higher level of English proficiency than those who completed their formal
education before entering the United States.