C. Language Loss

      Despite varying levels of income and education, immigrants are acquiring English and losing their heritage languages quickly. “Language loss” is a term describing the typical life of an immigrant language in the United States. Language loss is characterized by a consistent inter-generational pattern that occurs across language groups, and it has been verified by numerous research studies. The phenomenon begins with the adult immigrant coming to the United States and learning enough English to get by in daily life while continuing to use his or her native tongue - the so-called “heritage language” - at home. The adult immigrant raises his or her kids to speak the heritage language. However, once the kids start school and learn English, it becomes their preferred language with siblings and friends, and “[b]y the time they graduate from elementary school, these same children are better speakers of English than they are of the home language and prefer using English in nearly every realm.” The original adult immigrant's grandchildren usually grow up in a home where only English is spoken. Subsequently, these grandchildren typically have little, if any, familiarity with the heritage language.

      Language loss poses a number of problems for immigrant communities. First, a communicative gap emerges between generations of the community, which can lead to estrangement between parents and children, and children and their heritage language community. Those who lack heritage language skills may be considered outsiders because they lack one of the most obvious markers of group membership. An interfamilial lack of communication can cause frustration, miscommunication, and inability to convey basic messages, “undermining the parent-child relationship” and limiting the guidance and support parents can provide and children can receive.

      In addition, it can be very difficult to regain a heritage language once it is lost, especially for less common dialects and languages. Public schools often do not offer programs within their foreign language departments that are designed to meet the needs of native speakers. Some teachers may incorrectly presume that heritage language speakers have high levels of proficiency, when in fact their proficiency may be generally limited or primarily oral. Non-heritage speaking peers may also resent native speakers who excel in oral activities, further disincentivizing language maintenance.

      The causes of language loss are numerous and intertwined. Strong command of the English language is required for full participation in political, economic, social, and pop culture sectors; and English proficiency is a status symbol in immigrant communities. Particularly among younger generations, perfect English is seen as key to being accepted by mainstream society. In fact, today's immigrants are acquiring English faster than ever before. Census data shows that among foreign-born residents, almost 75% of those 5 years of age and older reported that they spoke English “well” or “very well.” English proficiency is advancing particularly fast among children of immigrants and child and teenage immigrants. A study by Alejandro Portes and Lingxin Hao surveyed over 5,000 eighth and ninth graders in two of the country's largest immigrant communities: Miami-Ft. Lauderdale and San Diego. The survey respondents were primarily U.S. born, but varied in national origin, and attended both inner city and suburban schools. The study found that students of all immigrant groups had high overall levels of self-reported English proficiency, regardless of educational background or social class. The vast majority (93.6%) said that they spoke English “well” or “very well” and almost 75% of the students said they preferred to speak English over their native tongue. Research by Xue Lue Rong found that

       [o]f the more than 2.2 million foreign-born children age 5 to 18, 86.8% reported speaking English ‘well’ or ‘very well.’ This is made even more remarkable by the fact that more than half of these children had been in the United States for less than 5 years, and one third for less than 3 years.

      Unfortunately, the pull of English is so powerful in immigrant communities that the heritage language is often neglected, and many immigrant parents mistakenly believe that speaking the heritage language at home will hinder their children's English acquisition and academic success. Foreign-born U.S. residents facing language barriers on a daily basis know better than anyone the importance of English proficiency in America. They may push their children to learn English to protect them from the discrimination that they have faced for their imperfect, or non-existent, English. Subsequently, both they and their children come to view English fluency as a badge of prestige, a membership card for entry into the mainstream. According to surveys by the Pew Hispanic Center, a clear majority of Latinos agree that immigrants “have to speak English to be part of American society.” Meanwhile, 92% of Latinos say it is “very important” for immigrant children to be taught English - a higher percentage than non-Hispanic whites (87%) or blacks (83%). This narrow focus on English acquisition often causes immigrant parents to overlook the cost to their children of losing their heritage language.

      Beyond the family unit, the heritage language community can encourage or discourage the development of language in its children. Adolescents are particularly prone to peer influence, and “the presence or absence of such heritage language groups determines to a large extent whether the language is seen as an asset or a liability.” This finding indicates that language acquisition, or lack thereof, is strongly influenced by peer language choices. However, given the strong pull of English and the language loss phenomena described above, heritage languages are more likely to be seen as a liability.

      Perhaps one of the most significant causes of language loss is the limited opportunities to maintain and develop one's heritage language. In some locales, community language schools exist. These programs, which usually take the form of an after-school program or Saturday school, attempt to teach students some basic heritage language skills, but they are usually understaffed and have limited resources. Additionally, some schools offer foreign language courses for the “native-speaker.” These are separate classes for heritage speakers that focus on their unique educational needs, which are usually grammar and literacy, since their oral and comprehension skills have developed at home. The needs of native speakers differ significantly from traditional language learners, who have no background ability to speak the language. These programs are not found in all areas and can vary in quality. A third opportunity to learn one's heritage language is a “maintenance” bilingual education program “designed to help students become fluent and literate in two languages by maintaining and developing the native language while students learn English.” Contrary to popular belief, most bilingual programs do not follow this model, and aim to replace the native language rather than preserve it. In fact, maintenance bilingual education programs make up only a small percentage of bilingual education programs in the United States.