San Francisco Examiner

Friday, March 27, 1998

No Reason To Fear a Multilingual Society

THIS has been a decade of cantankerousness toward California's growing multiculturalism.

After all, a solid majority of California voters has favored measures hostile to multiculturalism - Propositions 187 and 209. Polls show a majority favors a ballot measure on June 2, Proposition 227, the Unz anti-bilingual education initiative.

Lurking behind the majority votes of the contrarians is a fear that our way of life is in danger of being overrun by burrito trucks, sushi vendors, dim sum parlors and vats of kimchee. And the cacophony of tongues! Doesn't anybody speak English anymore?

Guess what? In these brown, yellow and black huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the children prefer English to the languages their families left behind. That's the conclusion of the three Cuban scholars after their multi-year survey of adolescent children of immigrants.

They interviewed 5,200 young people in Southern Florida and the San Diego area in 1992, when the youths were eighth and ninth graders. Three and four years later, they found 82 percent of the youngsters and interviewed them again. By then, the teenagers were mostly seniors in high school.

Almost 90 percent of them told the researchers they would rather speak English than the native language of their parents. They also said they believed the United States of America was the best country in which to live, despite personally experiencing some discrimination here.

The findings suggest that the linguistic outcomes for the third generation - the grandchildren of the current wave of immigrants - will be no different than what has been the age-old pattern of American history: The grandchildren may learn a few foreign words and phrases as a quaint vestige of their ancestry, but they will most likely grow up speaking English only, says Prof. Ruben G. Rumbaut of Michigan State University.

Rumbaut and his colleagues, Prof. Alejandro Portes of Princeton University and Lisandro Perez of Florida International University, also found that children of immigrants had higher grades and lower dropout rates, on the average, than other American high school students.

There were differences among different ethnic and socioeconomic groups, but the overall findings are a loud rebuke to the idea that the current generation of immigrants seeks to create linguistic and cultural fiefdoms in California.

What we have at work in this latest incarnation of the American immigration story isn't too far removed from earlier waves of European immigration. The Americanization process is very strong. I am not sure why some Americans - those who voted yes on 187, 209 and will likely vote yes on 227 - have so little confidence in it.

What may appear to be a significant difference between today's immigrant experience and that of previous generations - the desire to retain some measure of their native identities in language and culture - isn't much of a difference after all. The progeny of immigrants, then and now, appear to want very much to be a part of the American mainstream, English language and all.

It seems obvious (to me, at least) that children of immigrants realize at some point that they must be able to be as proficient as possible in English in order to avoid being ghettoized. If they are to compete in tomorrow's economic environment, they must do so in English. That doesn't mean they won't want to speak their native languages and celebrate unique cultural customs. They may choose lives that are ethnic and American at the same time. And what's wrong with that?

The survey findings of the three Cuban scholars ought to render the ill-considered Unz initiative moot. And mute.

William Wong is an independent journalist and Examiner columnist.