Learning English quickly

Mandarin, Korean, Russian and Cantonese speakers learn English much more quickly than students who speak Spanish, Hmong and Khmer, concludes a study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Chinese immigrant families are more educated and affluent than Spanish-speaking families; their children are more likely to attend schools with high-achieving students.

It also helps to attend a school where most students speak English, or, at least, don’t speak the same home language.

For the Spanish speakers — who make up 85 percent of all English learners in the state — the fact that they frequently hear Spanish at home, on the playground and on television also appears to be an impediment to fluency in their new language.

“Asian immigrants come to the United States without a lingua franca … (so) the Asians tend to gravitate toward English faster than the Spanish speakers,” said Marcelo Su‡rez-Orozco, co-director of immigration studies at New York University’s school of education.

I wonder why the study didn’t include Vietnamese speakers, who often come from low-income families yet learn English quickly and excel in school.

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  1. This looks like a pretty clear-cut case of socioeconomic factors outweighing inherent linguistic difficulty in impeding second language acqusition.

    I’ve studied Mandarin, Korean, Russian, Cantonese, Khmer, and Vietnamese, have learned a little Spanish on my own*, and have read linguistic works about Hmong (it’s not easy to find Hmong classes), so I think I can offer some perspective here.

    In terms of linguistic distance from English,

    – Spanish is closest to English (obviously)
    – Russian is next closest (also probably obvious)
    – any Asian language is pretty far

    and if you focus on differences in grammar (e.g., word order), Korean might be the most distant.

    *I realize that Spanish is very important in the mainland US, but there’s not much use for it in Hawaii or in my former academic specialty (Asian studies). Hawaii has had a Puerto Rican population for a century or so but it is very assimilated and English/Pidgin-speaking. There is a new wave of Hispanic immigration into Hawaii but so far it seems to be too small to make much of an impact.

  2. It might also have something to do with the fact that we have basically made it unnecessary for Spanish-speaking immigrants to learn English.

    Even here in Middle America, I have my choice of some 10-15 channels of Spanish programming on Cable, there are 4-5 Spanish stations on the radio, and pretty much every business’s phone tree I’ve had to navigate begins with “push 1 for English, para Espanol, numero dos.”

    In California, the situation is even worse. The last time I was in Southern California, there were more Spanish language stations on the radio than there were English. Hell, we don’t even expect immigrants to learn to read “walk” and “don’t walk.”

  3. Geographically the Vietnamese could be considered between the Cantonese and the Hmong. I wonder if they are linguistically as well.

    It blew me away when I was recalled to active duty in 2003 and I discovered that some of the army “informational posters” on the wall were in Spanish…

    I’m sure having a teammate who doesn’t understand English is a real asset in a firefight.

  4. Winston,

    “Even here in Middle America …”

    Yes, that has continually surprised me during my travels through the mainland US. Maybe Hawaii and, I assume, Alaska, are the last two states without all that Spanish?

    Years ago on NIGHTLINE, some Hispanic lady was featured who had lived in the US for years and learned no English whatsoever. When asked about that, her response was something like, “Why bother? I can do everything I want in Spanish!” (Not an exact quote.)

    Off the top of my head, you can only get away without learning the local language if you speak English or Spanish. Eveyrone else has to communicate abroad in the local language (or in English as a lingua franca).

    That really sunk in when I lived in Holland and travelled to Germany and France. Once I got on the train, I noticed there was nothing in Dutch. Announcements and labels were in German, French, and English. The message was clear: Dutch is not enough. Learn a foreign language.

    Moving to the other side of the world, if you are an Iranian immigrant to Japan (there are actually quite a few), you will have to learn Japanese. Period. There will be no Iranian voices on the phone for you. (In a photo feature in a Japanese magazine 14 years ago, an Iranian worker in Japan was amazed to meet a Japanese university student majoring in Farsi. “Finally someone I can talk to!”, said the worker [not an exact quote].)


    “Geographically the Vietnamese could be considered between the Cantonese and the Hmong. I wonder if they are linguistically as well.”

    The three languages are not related and share nothing in common apart from Chinese elements (borrowed into Vietnamese and Hmong) and similar word order. Vietnamese does share noun-adjective word order with Hmong: e.g.,

    ‘new year’
    Vietnamese nam moi (lit. ‘year new’)
    Hmong xyoo tshiab (lit. ‘year new’)
    but Cantonese 新年 san nin (lit. ‘new year’)

    The three do not sound much like each other; For instance, Hmong has an exotic hm- sound lacking in the other two. You can see some of the other exotic Hmong consonants here:


    But all three languages do all have tones: six or more in Cantonese (depending on how you count them), five to six in Vietnamese depending on dialect, and eight in Hmong. Syllable-final consonants in Hmong spelling represent tones, not actual consonants: e.g., the -b at the end of tshiab ‘new’ represents a high level tone. In Hmong spelling, ‘Hmong’ is ‘Hmoob’, since that name has a high level tone. (The double o signifies ‘ong’ in Hmong spelling.)

  5. I bet there are more reading programs, instructors, and opportunities to learn English for those who speak Russian (millions of people, an economy), Cantonese (hundreds of millions, growing economy), Mandarin (hundreds of millions, growing economy), and Korean (millions of people, growing economy). I can’t see a publisher getting quite as excited about Hmong and Khmer, which have how many people and how much clout in the world?

    As for Spanish speakers, there just isn’t enough of a will to learn English. Some of it is pride, some is utility, and some is logistical. I haven’t really learned any new language, because I don’t have to. For most Spanish speakers (even in the United States), that’s their situation, too.