Never fluent

According to a study by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, 40 percent of children who start kindergarten without English fluency won’t be fluent by seventh grade. Sixty percent of those who arrive after kindergarten never will become fluent in English.

As Daniel Weintraub points out in the Sacramento Bee, the results vary dramatically for different language groups.

Native speakers of Hmong and Spanish, for instance, learn English far more slowly than speakers of Mandarin and Korean. The differences are clear by the second grade, when more than 80 percent of Mandarin- and Korean-speaking students score at a level 3 or higher (out of 5) in reading English on the state’s special test for English learners. Among students who speak Spanish or Hmong, fewer than 30 percent reach that level by the second grade.

. . . while native speakers of Spanish and Mandarin start kindergarten with similar grasps of English, by third grade more than half the Mandarin speakers are reading and writing English at a level 4 or level 5 out of 5 while only about 15 percent of Spanish speakers have reached that level.

Of course, there are dramatic differences between Spanish- and Mandarin-speaking parents in education and culture. The children of educated, education-pushing parents start school with a good knowledge of their native language and the will to overcome challenges.

About Joanne


  1. LibraryGryffon says:

    Could it also be that the Mandarin speakers are less likely to be consigned to “bilingual” ed classes, where all they get to hear for 5 1/2 hours out of 6 is their native language?

  2. How many Mandarin TV and radio stations are there in California?
    I’m guessing that the access to media in your native language could retard your enthusiasim for learnign the dominate language.

  3. Jessie Rosenberg says:

    The differences are even more extreme when one takes into account that Spanish is much closer to English than Mandarin is. The grammar and words in Spanish are much the same as in English, so you’d think Spanish speaking students would learn English much more quickly than Mandarin-speaking students, since Mandarin is a tonal language with a pictographic writing system and very different grammar.

  4. I’ve heard so many retarded ideas on how the Oriental languages fit better with learning English. That is worse than most of teh left-wing lies I’ve heard this year (but then it’s only February). I went into Kindergarten knowing little English and I remember how difficult it was for me to grasp English because distinct parts of grammar were different from what I was used to.

    Jessie is right with the part about the differences in language, and Geoff is right about the ability for students to communicate outside of English. A new Korean student will learn English much more quickly living in the middle of farm area Kansas than he will if he lives in Koreatown.

  5. I think Joanne also unintentionally conflated “educated” parents with “education-pushing” parents. Not all Chinese/Korean parents are well educated though the average is probably higher than for Hispanics. But I would wager that, correcting for comparable income and education levels, Chinese/Korean parents are more likely to be “education-pushing” parents regardless of their actual level of educational attainment.

  6. How much of this data is for students who entered schools which had “bilingual” education where they were never actually taught English?

  7. Jessie,

    I agree with your point, but as a linguistics professor specializing in Asian languages, I’d like to clear up something in your last line.

    Chinese writing is not “pictographic.” No functional writing system is. Although Chinese characters are *derived* from pictures, they represent sounds, and their pictorial value today is close to nil. The Roman alphabet is also ultimately derived from pictures, but

    The vast majority of Chinese characters are rebuses, because

    (1) it is impossible to draw every word in a language (e.g., “this” which is abstract) and

    (2) even if it were possible to draw every word, it is impossible to memorize thousands of different pictures (try drawing items on a Chinese menu).

    Instead of, say, drawing pictures of many different kinds of fish, Chinese recycle a fixed number of phonetic signs combined with a highly stylized drawing of a fish as a semantic hint: e.g. (all pronunciations are as in Mandarin),

    yu “fish” = 魚

    sha “sand” = 沙

    sha “shark” = 鯊
    (with the phonetic element 沙 sha “sand” stacked atop the semantic element 魚 yu “fish”)

    Similarly, “whale” (not a fish, but close enough) is 鯨 jing, composed of the phonetic element 京 jing “capital” (as in 北京 Beijing “north capital”) plus the semantic element 魚 yu “fish.”

    If English were written like Chinese, one might write the pronoun “I” with a stylized drawing of an eye (as a phonetic “eye”), possibly accompanied by a semantic indicator “person.”

    (Not all Chinese characters have semantic indicators. Some are pure rebuses: e.g., 來 lai “come” is a drawing of a plant whose name sounded like the word for “come” and 萬 wan “ten thousand” is a drawing of a scorpion because the old Chinese word for “scorpion” was homophonous for “ten thousand.”)

    It is the reliance on a recurring, finite number of phonetic elements that makes Chinese writing functional. Any novel combination of sounds (pronounceable within the bounds of Chinese speech, of course) can be written in Chinese characters: e.g., instead of drawing a single picture associated with “Islam” to write “Islam,” three characters are selected for their sounds without any regard for their meanings:

    伊 yi “he/she” (obsolete as a pronoun in Mandarin; now just a phonetic symbol for the syllable “(y)i”)

    斯 si “this” (obsolete in Mandarin; now just a phonetic symbol for the consonant “s”)

    蘭 lan “orchid”

    Chinese writing is like a huge syllabary, with one or more ways to write a given syllable (Mandarin has about 1,000 syllables in all, if tones are factored in) depending on semantics and other factors too elaborate to go into here.

    Anyway, the writing system isn’t that relevant for some if not most of the Mandarin-speaking kids in this study since they are probably semi- or wholly illiterate in Chinese. It is very difficult to achieve Chinese literacy in China itself, and even harder to do so on American soil.

    As for grammar, Chinese is really not that much different from English, though of course Spanish is much closer. The word order is rather similar (e.g., subject-verb-object).

    Hmong grammar is like Chinese, but somewhat further from English.

    Korean is less like English or Spanish than Chinese and Hmong are, due to its word order (subject-object-verb) and its case-marking system, among other things.

    If language structure were the sole predictive factor in language learning success, Korean speakers might be at the bottom, with Hmong next, Mandarin not much higher, and Spanish speakers way at the top.

    So the question is: How do Mandarin- and Korean-speaking children overcome their linguistic disadvantage? They start out way behind but end up way ahead. Why?

  8. “The Roman alphabet is also ultimately derived from pictures, but”

    … no one calls it pictographic.

    Sorry for the omission.

    Both the alphabet and Chinese characters make use of rebuses. “D” started out as a drawing of a door (pronounced something like “dalt” in Phoenician; the resemblance to English is coincidental) which came to be used for the consonant “d” in general, not just “door.”

    Just as no one sees a tooth in the letter “S” anymore (the Phoenician word for tooth was something like “shin”), probably no Chinese think of 斯 si, the phonetic symbol used to write the “si” of 伊斯蘭 Yisilan (Islam) as a drawing of a basket (其) and an axe (斤).

    Yes, if pressed, Chinese can still identify the parts of the graph, but for everyday purposes, 斯 is just a sound symbol and nothing more (unless they happen to know of its use as a rebus for the obsolete word si “this” or its original, obsolete meaning of “cleave”).

    A quick Google search turns up 斯 si corresponding to the sound “s” in many foreign and pseudo-foreign names and words:

    杜拉斯 Duras
    吉佰斯 gbise(.com; a Chinese site)
    艾克斯特 extech(.com; another Chinese site; 斯 corresoponds to the “s” sound between ek- and -tech).
    佛斯 Foss
    克里斯特尔斯 Clijsters (notice how 斯 appears twice, once per “s” sound)
    乌迪内斯 Udinese (an Italian soccer team)
    布克斯 books
    耐斯 nice (which ends in an “s” sound)
    梅斯可 misc
    贝贝斯 BBS

    None of the above have anything semantic in common, and a true pictographic writing system (not that any such thing exists) would have ten different pictures for them. But Chinese write them all with 斯 si to write the “si” syllable that they do have in common when pronounced with a Mandarin accent.

  9. “How many Mandarin TV and radio stations are there in California? I’m guessing that the access to media in your native language could retard your enthusiasim for learnign the dominate language.”

    That’s true, but remember that the Hmong speakers were listed with the Spanish speakers as failing to achieve English fluency.

    What is the status of Hmong-language media in California? I’m guessing that the Hmong population, while vastly smaller than the Spanish, are quite heavily concentrated. But even so, I can’t imagine that they’d come close to heaving the breadth and quality of the Spanish-language programming.

    Yours truly,
    Jeffrey Boulier

  10. I think everyone is missing an obvious point.

    I served in the military in Central America. Interestingly Chinese, i.e. those imigrating from China or Taiwan, learned Spanish quicker than Americans, those of us from the US including Chinese of second or third generations.

    I think what is going on is Mandarin speaking or Korean speaking kids have parents of Chinese or Korean descent, and these parents understand that to get ahead in a culture you need to speak and read the dominant language. To them language is a skill and a tool. Much like one learns to drive if one wants to be a chauffeur, one learns a country’s language to be able to live there.

    I don’t know about Hmong speaking families, but I know those of Spanish descent see speaking Spanish as a proud part of their culture. To them Spanish is part of who they are. They do not value the need to learn English as highly as do the Chinese and Koreans.

    In fact it surprised me while in the Army to see so many Spanish speaking soldiers who enlisted as foreign nationals and who wanted to make the Army a career yet who saw n need to learn English.

    I think the differences have less to do with the language of the kids and more to do with the parents attitudes toward a language.

  11. Please do not imply that Korean/Chinese culture does not take pride in their heritage. On the contrary. Perhaps it is because there is so much pride taken in their own culture that they are pushed to succeed in the dominating culture around them. Through success, they have upheld their own cultural standards which they are proud of to begin with. Pushing ones children to learn English in the Chinese/Korean culture is not derived from not having pride in their own. Strictly, learning English is a tool one must learn to get ahead in life in the U.S.. Totally, apples and oranges.