Second Language Learning and the Schooling of Immigrant Teenagers: Focus on Prevailing Misconceptions

by Aida Walqui

In Access and Engagement. Program design and instructional approaches for immigrant students in secondary schools. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.

Understanding the variety of backgrounds that immigrant secondary students bring to their schooling in the U.S. is the first step in being able to educate them well; the next step involves examining our own misconceptions about second language learning for adolescents. We need to understand the complex processes of second language acquisition that research and theory have elucidated to date. In addition, we need to understand the larger social and cultural issues that shape the education of immigrant students, such as prejudice, social alienation, and gang activities.

Some common misconceptions

Educators and the population at large often hold misconceptions about second language learning which play a large part in general perceptions of these learners, societal tensions, and the establishment of policies and practices regarding language education in schools. The following discussion focuses on some of the most damaging misconceptions that affect the education of immigrant students at the secondary school level (cf. McLaughlin, 1994).

Misconception One: Learning English as Quickly as Possible is the First Priority for Immigrant Students

For a long time, the main challenge of educating immigrant teenagers in American schools has been seen as the effective teaching of English as a second language, which ideally, in the minds of many, should take place as quickly as possible (Chavez, 1995; Peterson, 1993; Porter, 1993). However, although language development is part of the purpose of any schooling (Bernstein, 1972; Heath, 1983) -- whether it takes place in the family language or in a second language -- its focus and form change as students develop. While in the lower elementary grades students primarily learn to read and write (in addition to being socialized into the culture of the school), in the higher grades students increasingly read and write to learn. Cognitive and academic development are central to the notion of schooling at that level, and the role of language development shifts to support these other aspects of development.

Successfully teaching immigrant adolescents to speak English as a second language alone, then, is not sufficient to enable them to succeed in American middle and high schools, where they will be required to perform at sophisticated levels of cognition and in subject-specific areas. If a narrow focus is placed on the linguistic development of English, how will immigrant students ever be able to catch up academically to their native counterparts? As Virginia Collier (1995) points out, native English-speaking students do not wait for second language learners to achieve their academic level; they themselves are continuously expanding their linguistic and cognitive command in English. The future success of English learners, paradoxically, depends on much more than learning English, involving the crucial ability to use the central concepts, canons, and discourse that is associated with different disciplines.

Misconception Two: If Students Can Converse in English, They Can Handle Mainstream Courses Taught in English

It is sometimes assumed in schools that a student's ability in everyday oral communication is a valid measure of his or her competence to use language in a wide variety of settings, including demanding academic work. However, gaps exist between everyday and academic language use, for first-language as well as second-language speakers (see Cazden 1988; Heath, 1983); these gaps occur between school demands and social experiences and include differences in school-based and home-based value systems, goals, and experiential sources of knowledge. Such gaps between home and school can lead to difficulties with providing English language learners with access to academic content, unless a great deal of instructional and linguistic support is provided (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988; Lambert and Cazabon, 1994; Delpit, 1995).

Based on this misconception, immigrant students are promoted from ESL classes into mainstream classes (conducted exclusively in English) on the basis of their conversational ability alone and are not given any support --academic or linguistic. As a result, these students often lag behind their native English speaking counterparts in academic progress. As Cummins (1979) has indicated, there may actually be two dimensions of communicative competence, what he has called Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). BICS refers to the ability a person has to use a second language in face-to-face situations, when the repair of breakdowns in communication is easily negotiable; CALP refers to the ability to use the second language appropriately in situations in which the content is decontextualized and cognitively demanding, such as the ability needed by a tenth grader in California to read and discuss a text on the socioeconomic conditions that were prevalent in pre-revolutionary France.

Second language learners may fail academically because their promotion into English-only classes is made on an exclusive assessment of their BICS and not of their CALP. In Cumminís own words, "the distinction highlighted the fact that educatorsí conflating of these aspects of proficiency was a major factor in the creation of academic difficulties for minority students" (1991, p.78). Though Cummins (1981) has since elaborated the dichotomy into two intersecting continua which highlight the range of cognitive demands and contextual support involved in specific language activities, the key distinction between conversational and academic linguistic proficiency remains.

Another aspect that has traditionally been considered for sequencing the mainstreaming process of immigrant students into regular academic classes is the nature of the subject matter being taught. The rule of thumb used to be (see for example, California Department of Education, 1994) to mainstream students first into Math and Science courses, and then into Social Studies and Literature, The assumption was made partly because the linguistic demands of discussing topics related to the latter areas are higher than the ones needed to solve mathematical problems or to conduct laboratory experiments. Teaching Math and Science for understanding, however, require that students do not simply apply formulas, but that they evaluate, compare, contrast, hypothesize, and elaborate conclusions using both oral and written language. In other words, satisfactory performance in these areas requires the use of complex and sophisticated subject-specific discourse; when teaching math and science for understanding, mainstreaming criteria need to be reconsidered. Science and math courses, however, still have the advantage of being less culturally loaded than literature or government courses.

Misconception Three: Native Language is a Crutch that Impedes a Studentís Progress in English

Opponents of native language instruction often argue that the time taken to teach in the native language reduces the time available for second language exposure, therefore reducing the rate of second language learning. They assume that more exposure to English is better. A related assumption is that the first language interferes with the second language, so that the chances for second language proficiency are increased if the first language is excluded as much as possible. A third assumption is that students will not learn the second language if the first language is available for communication and academic instruction. In such a scenario, proponents believe, the students are not motivated to learn the second language because they do not need it to communicate.

This triple argument of exposure, interference, and need is a powerful force against the use of studentsí native languages in the school or, indeed, sometimes even in the home. What counter-arguments could possibly be found in favor of continued first-language use? Exposure to the second language is clearly important; however, the quality of the exposure is more important than its quantity. Just as time on task does not in itself produce learning (Carroll, 1984), extensive exposure to English does not in itself promote the learning of English. Key issues contributing to the learning of a language include access and engagement, that is, understanding or participating in the second language event and being attentive and emotionally involved with learning the language.

Cummins' (1981) interdependence hypothesis also refutes the assumption that maximum exposure to the second language, as soon as possible, enhances the speed of acquisition of the language, as well as the academic performance of its learners. After reviewing several studies, Cummins concludes that the development of studentsí first language cognitive and academic skills is as important as exposure to the second language for the development of cognitive-academic skills in the second language.

Several research studies have been carried out that support the interdependence hypothesis: Cumminsís (1978) research with Ukranian students in Alberta, Canada and with Punjabi children in Bradford, England (1979), and work conducted by Rees in San Diego (1981), show that once cognitive and academic skills exist in the student's mother tongue, they can easily be transferred into a second language. Thus, studying via the medium of the native language does not delay or impede academic performance in another language, but rather facilitates it, since the ability to perform in a second language depends on the ability to perform in the first.

The interdependence hypothesis helps explain in part why Igor and Marisela were making such gains with their English language learning. They studied in their mother tongue for a considerable amount of time, which created a cognitive base from which they could draw as they developed a second language. This hypothesis also throws light on Carlosís failure and the difficulties faced by Monique, who had little academic success in their native languages. As will be seen later, coursework conducted in Haitian Creole was not only beneficial for Monique, but became a cornerstone for her eventual academic success.

Misconception Four: All Adolescent Immigrants can progress at the same rate in learning English

As we all know, students with differing personal circumstances perform differently on academic tasks at their grade level. Thus, it seems natural to assume that students will vary considerably in the amount of time it takes to learn academic English. In a ten-year longitudinal study, Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas from George Mason University (1995) analyzed data from five school districts, a sample of approximately 42,000 language minority school children per year, to answer the frequently asked question: How long does it take immigrant students to learn English well enough to perform with academic success in mainstream classes? The answer: it varies a great deal. It may take students anywhere from four to ten years to reach the 50th Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE) or percentile on standardized tests in their second language, depending on their personal histories and the educational context.

Language acquisition, both first and subsequent, at whatever age, is an arduous task requiring enormous investments in time, attention, effort and emotional engagement. Some researchers (McLaughlin, 1990) argue that teenagers are intrinsically better language learners than either younger or older learners, since a teenager already has a well-developed cognitive base and learning skills. On the other hand, the linguistic sophistication required of teenagers is greater than that required of young children. While children may only need to be surrounded by language, in a positive climate, to acquire a language, teenagers may need much more than linguistic exposure -- the student must be able to be involved and engaged with communicative events in order to profit from them and develop communicative competence. The length of time it will take individual students to develop this competence cannot be predicted accurately, especially for immigrant teenagers who have so much to learn about academic English.

Misconception Five: Immigrant Studentsí Academic Progress Depends Solely on Individual Motivation

Immigrant students may seem to their teachers to be withdrawn; this withdrawal is often misconstrued as a lack of motivation, when often it stems more from their fear of failure and from a sense that teachers do not truly expect them to succeed. Instead of blaming the students for their "inherent" lack of motivation, teachers need to ask themselves: What kinds of norms, values, beliefs and expectations are being conveyed through spoken and unspoken messages delivered in class every day? How are immigrant students made to feel about their capabilities and possibilities for success? Is the climate of the class one that makes students feel capable, valued, challenged and supported? Are they continuously being provided with opportunities for access, engagement and development of their cognitive, academic and linguistic capabilities? If we can provide positive responses to these questions, students will be motivated to learn.

When immigrant students experience a mismatch between the world of their family, the world of their peers and the world of school, they will withdraw and success, if at all, will be sporadic. In classrooms where these students do well, "teachers know the students well, are attuned to their needs, and show personal concerns for their lives. These teachers are aware of their studentsí precarious academic status and incorporate various pedagogical methods to ensure student involvement" (Phelan, Davidson & Cao, 1991, p. 245). Involvement is possible because students are motivated by the assurance that teachers think they are capable, value the knowledge they bring to the classroom, and will help them achieve beyond their current level of competence (Abi-Nader, 1993; Lucas et al., 1990; Moll & Diaz, 1993).

These five misconceptions dangerously misrepresent the needs of immigrant students and present overly simplistic approaches to second language learning. The reality of their needs is much more complex, as the six profiled students have shown. Instead of basing our instructional programs on these misconceptions, we need to be guided by a solid understanding of the nature of second language acquisition as it is informed by current research and theory.

The complex processes of second language acquisition

More important than discussions about the advantages of one teaching method or another is our understanding of contextual factors and how they may affect the learning opportunities of our students. We must assume that all our students are intrinsically capable of adequate language development and able to do well in school, but that a host of factors may enhance or impede their development and academic progress.

We can examine these contextual factors by examining second language learning from several different perspectives which include the language, the learner, and the learning process. Each of these perspectives has its individual, its social, and its societal side. This can be visually represented as follows:

Figure 1: Perspectives on Second Language Learning

This figure shows some of the many factors that may influence the second language learning process, some of which we explored previously in the individual student profiles. The complexity illustrated here militates against any simplistic views of the language learning process. We must realize that learning -- especially language learning -- is not always the result of teaching, and teaching does not necessarily lead to learning. We need to understand the complex phenomena of language learning from a variety of perspectives, for learning a language, which is so central to our thoughts and social relationships, cannot be reduced to a simple transmission of facts and automated skills.



A number of factors related to both the students' first and second languages shape language learning, including the linguistic distance between the two languages; the students' proficiency in the native language and prior knowledge of the second language; whether the native language is a non-standard or standard dialect�; the status of its speakers; and sociolinguistic attitudes.

Language Distance

The high school learnerís second language development is first of all influenced by the distance between the native language and the target language. Languages can be comparatively more or less difficult to learn, depending on how different or similar they are. At the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, for example, languages are placed in four different categories, depending on their average learning difficulty (from the perspective of the native English speaker). The basic intensive language course, which brings a student to an intermediate level, can be as short as 24 weeks, in the case of languages such as Dutch or Spanish, or as long as 65 weeks, in the case of languages such as Arabic, Korean, or Vietnamese.

Native language development

Another factor that needs to be taken into account is the level of proficiency the student has reached in his or her native language. This refers not only to attainment in literacy, but also to metalinguistic development, training in formal and academic features of language, knowledge of rhetorical patterns and variations in genre and style, and so on. The more academically sophisticated the studentís native-language knowledge and abilities are, the easier it will be for that student to add a second language to his or her repertoire. This observation may help explain why foreign exchange students tend to be successful in American high school classes: because they already have high school level proficiency in their native language.

Knowledge of the second language

In addition to varying levels of native language development, high school students have varying amounts of prior knowledge of English, ranging from conversational skills acquired from contacts with the English-speaking world, to formal -- mostly grammatical -- knowledge obtained in English as a foreign language classes in their countries of origin. An effective program needs to use the studentsí prior knowledge as a basis for further development, while at the same time being aware of the specific demands that a studentís language history may place on second language learning. For example, a student with informal conversational English skills, picked up in the street or around the neighborhood, may have little understanding of English grammatical systems. Such a learner may face severe difficulties in developing grammatical competence since this involves a regression from a comfortable though superficial conversational fluency, almost going back to a communicative "square one," in order to eventually achieve a more grammatically elaborated linguistic proficiency. This is, psychologically as well as linguistically, a difficult and protracted process (see Higgs and Clifford 1982).

Dialect and register differences

At the social level, learners may need to learn a dialect and a register in school which differ from the ones they are used to hearing in their daily lives. It is natural to resist, consciously or unconsciously, acquiring speech patterns which differ significantly from more familiar ones. Such patterns seem "unnatural," or even constitute a sort of "betrayal" of oneís loyalties to a particular group or philosophy. The influence of language attitudes that may exist in the learner, the peer group, the school, the neighborhood, and society at large, is crucial because such attitudes can have an enormous effect on the second language learning process, for better or worse. It is vital that teachers and students themselves examine and understand these attitudes, and realize that second language acquisition is the addition of new repertoires, not the replacement of oneís known and trusted variety with another, possibly alien one.

This is true not only in the teaching of English as a Second Language, but even in the teaching of subject matter in the studentsí native language, whenever that possibility is available in the schools. I have been told by students in Spanish for Native Speakers classes in California --which follow the English Language Arts curriculum through literary texts originally written in Spanish, or translated into Spanish-- that they feel bad when teachers tell them that the way they speak Spanish is not right, that people do not speak that way ("No se dice así"). "Thatís the way everybody I know speaks, why is she saying nobody speaks that way?" they respond. Clearly this is an issue of dialectal or register difference: school requires formal registers and standard dialects, while conversation with friends and relatives calls for informal registers and oftentimes nonstandard dialects. If, in order to speak the "schooled" way, students have to deny the way their loved ones interact, they will not be willing to learn or use the new variety. If, instead, their expressive ways are valued when used in appropriate contexts, new discourses will not replace them, but will instead expand studentsí communicative repertoires and promote academic success. This calls for enhancing teachersí orientation to language varieties and providing professional development --and pre-service education-- to address these issues.

Linguistic prestige

The consideration of dialects and registers naturally leads us think about the relationship between the studentsí first and second languages, the relative prestige of the two languages, and their related cultural and ethnic associations. If the first language has a very low status vis á vis the second, then second language acquisition is in many cases more difficult and problematic, since it involves overcoming a psychological as well as a social gap. In addition, for those learners who manage to make this jump, they may lose their native language, which can have several negative effects on themselves and their peers: they may have to "give up" on their own background in order to join the more prestigious target society; their less determined peers may see this change as a "betrayal," a reason not to follow their example.

The Learner

When we think about the language learners themselves, we need to keep several factors in mind. We must remember that students, like the ones profiled earlier, have diverse needs, backgrounds, and goals. When we think about adolescent language learners, we need to remember that peer pressure and home support can strongly affect their desire and ability to learn a second language.

Diverse needs and goals

A basic principle of learning is that all new learning has to be based on old learning, on prior experiences and existing skills. In our schools this principle, though it is known and agreed on by all educators, tends to be overshadowed by the administrative convenience of the linear curriculum and the single textbook. Homogeneous curricula and materials are problematic enough if all learners are from a single language and cultural background, but they are clearly indefensible given the great diversity in todayís classrooms, which requires a different conception of curricula and a different approach to materials. Differentiation and individualization are not a luxury in such a scenario; they are a necessity.

Learners are not only diverse in terms of their prior languages, they also have different goals and ambitions. A learnerís goals may determine the way in which he or she will use the language being learned, how native-like the pronunciation will be, how elaborate, in lexical and grammatical terms, utterances will be, and how much energy will be expended in efforts to understand messages in the target language.

The learnerís goals in second language learning can vary from wholly integrative, that is, the desire to assimilate and become a full member of the dominant English-speaking world, to more instrumental, that is, oriented towards specific goals, such as academic or professional success. It is often assumed that an integrative orientation is more conducive to second language success than an instrumental one, though no conclusive evidence exists either way (Ellis, 1994; Gardner & Tremblay, 1994). What matters most is that the student clarifies his or her own goals, and then finds clear and consistent ways of relating second language learning to these goals. For this to be possible, the student must find meaningful opportunities to use the language and feel accepted and valued in the community.

Peer group effects

Teenagers tend to be heavily influenced by their peer group and in second language learning, peer pressure often undermines the goals parents and teachers set in terms of proficiency and attainment. In foreign language learning (e.g., French or Spanish) this often reduces the desire of the student to work towards a native-like accent, since the sounds of the target language may be regarded as "funny." In English as a second language, speaking like a native speaker may unconsciously be regarded as a sign of no longer "belonging" to the peer group and may lead to rejection. It is very important, especially for high school students, to bear these peer influences in mind and, as much as possible, foster a positive image for second language proficiency.

One solution to this problem is for teachers and other school personnel to stress that the acquisition of native-like proficiency in English does not mean losing oneís peer-group dialect or street language. Everyone is capable of code switching, and indeed, to some extent everyone does this when moving in and out of different groups during work and leisure. The value of an ability to switch from standard English to teenage English, and from English to the native language, or from the familiar register in the native language to its academic register, should be highlighted. In this way the stigma that may be attached to speaking fluent English can be counteracted by a realization of the requirements of the situated self, which should not undermine the enduring self (Spindler & Spindler, 1993).

Home support

Home support is very important for a successful second language learner, although as we saw before, this support may be present in noninterventionist ways (Bhachu, 1985) and consequently misunderstood by school personnel. Furthermore, it is sometimes believed that such support should take the form of speaking the second language in the home (see, e.g., recommendations made in Rodriguez, 1984), but it is far more important for the parents to value both the native and the second language, to communicate (in whichever language is most convenient), and show support for and interest in the studentís progress.

For example, Gibsonís study of Punjabi high school students in a Central Valley California community (1996) found that the immigrant high school students did very well academically although they were not integrated into the "mainstream society." The students in her study did not participate in sports or after-school extracurricular activities because of their parentsí encouragement to work hard on homework. In this case, parental expectations and belief in the importance of schooling had an impact on their childrenís persistence and seriousness in school. As one mother explained to Gibson, "the main thing is to study" (p. 119); their social life would come later, after their studies. By the same token, these teenagers --unlike their peers-- did not take jobs after school, because it was their familiesí position that their job was to study.

In another study, Marcelo Suárez Orozco (1996) focused on Central American immigrant high schoolers, attempting to explain the school success many of them experienced "despite a school atmosphere of drugs, violence, low expectations, the calculated tracking of minority students to nonacademic subjects (in already nonacademic schools), bitter teachers, the seductive offers of more acculturated peers to join the street culture, and the need to work to help the family" (p. 132). Parents expressed that they had moved to this country, escaping political turmoil and wars for the welfare of their children, leaving loved ones behind so that their children could become "somebody" tomorrow. Central American immigrant youngsters had developed a dual frame of reference as they compared present opportunities in the host country and the violent and scarce realities they had left at home. In their minds there was no doubt that the situation here was preferable and promised a brighter future. If they worked hard they would be able to repay their parents and others in their homeland for the sacrifices they made in their favor. Their determination to compensate their parents with the fruits of schooling was so clear that teachers and others saw them as more eager to learn, exerting greater effort, studying harder, and consequently getting better grades than other minority students at their schools.

Role models

In addition to the previously mentioned social factors, it is important for students to have positive and realistic role models who symbolize the value of additive bilingualism, that is, the acquisition of a second language without concurrent loss of the first language, such as Mrs. Baez was to Luis Rodríguez (Rodríguez, 1993). It would also be appropriate for students to read literature about the personal experiences of people from diverse language and dialect backgrounds. since, through discussions about the processes undergone by others, they can become more clear about their own.

The learning process

When we think of second language development as a learning process, we need to remember that different students have different learning styles, that internal motivation aids learning, and that the quality of classroom interaction matters a great deal.

Learning styles

Methods of second language teaching have generally assumed that learners learn in identical ways. However, research studies have made it clear that there are great individual differences among learners in the ways they learn a second language (Skehan, 1989). Some of these differences can be grouped together as learning styles, which are cognitive, physical, and social preferences for certain ways of learning. Some learners may be more analytically oriented and thrive on picking apart words and sentences. Others may be more holistically oriented, needing to experience overall patterns of language in meaningful contexts before being able to make sense of the linguistic parts and forms. Some learners are more visually-oriented, others more geared to sounds; some require silence for study, while others prefer a busy and noisy environment. Some prefer to work on their own, and others work best in cooperative groups.

Intrinsic motivation

A crucial factor in successful learning is motivation, especially intrinsic motivation. According to Deci and Ryan (1985; see also Deci, 1995), intrinsic motivation refers to the basic human needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Intrinsically motivated activities are those that the learner engages in for their own sake, because of their intrinsic value, interest, and challenge. Such activities present the best possible opportunities for learning to the student. Unfortunately, the high school environment contains many external threats, rewards, and controls, including an excessive focus on grades, tests, and behavioral discipline, all of which tend to undermine intrinsic motivation, to the detriment of studentsí progress (Kohn 1993; Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde & Whalen, 1993; Deci 1995).

Classroom interaction

One final variable in second language learning is the quality of classroom interaction. Language learning is not the transmission of facts about language or a succession of rote memorization drills; rather it is the result of meaningful interaction with others in the target language. Lecturing and recitation are therefore not the most appropriate modes of language use in the second language classroom. Instead, teachers need to move towards more richly interrelated language use with their students, such as the instructional conversation described by Tharp and Gallimore (1988) and Goldenberg (1994) or collaborative classroom work (Adger et al., 1995, Cohen, 1992). Chapter Five will elaborate more on teaching/learning aspects necessary for the successful education of immigrant teenagers.

Social and Cultural Contexts of Second Language Development

So far, I have discussed the second language acquisition process from the perspective of the language, the learner, and the learning process. But the picture is not complete without a fourth component which encompasses the other three, namely the larger social and cultural context of American society, which has a tremendous impact on second language learning, especially for minority students. The status of the students' ethnic group in relationship to the mainstream culture can help or hinder the desire to acquire the language of the mainstream society. In addition, current views on immigration and immigrants affect these students and their experiences in American schools. As George and Louise Spindler (1993) argue, we must consider how the educational system contributes to increasing or bridging the marginalization of immigrant students who enter the system with a marginal status.

Most immigrant students are children of poverty, and thus live in poor neighborhoods, sometimes sharing very limited space with other immigrant families. Youngsters in these situations occasionally end up spending more time in the streets than they would if they had more space at home or if they had access to neighborhood centers where they could spend their time safely and productively. In addition, gangs and violence are often part of the daily activities in many poor neighborhoods today so that, for these poor young men and women, a central feature of their social context is the presence of violence and gangs.

The social circumstances of minority education have been the subject of much study ever since the rejection of theories of racial and cultural deficits based on genetic differences among ethnic groups, as proposed by Jensen (1969) and others. Early assumptions of cultural deprivation, i.e., the notion that some groups are less successful because their cultural context does not stimulate the cognitive, linguistic, and emotional growth that is necessary for academic and social success, were soon challenged by theories of cultural difference (as opposed to deficit; Ogbu 1991, Foley 1991), which has brought into focus such issues as the relationships between different cultural practices, cross-cultural access to goods and services, and gaps between social groups and institutions. Instead of seeing a minority culture as "the culprit," differential success (or access) is studied from the perspective of the dynamics between the groups and individuals involved. The most important question from this perspective is how groups, and individuals within these groups, interact with one another.

The success, or lack thereof, of certain minority groups in society and in education is the result of complex interactions of factors that emerge when subordinate groups come into contact with dominant (controlling) groups. These factors are not random, but rather exhibit certain predictable patterns that can be studied.


Voluntary or involuntary status

One approach to the study of the social and cultural context of minority education is represented quite influentially by John Ogbu, who argues for the importance of historical and wider societal forces in explaining the educational success or lack of success for different minority groups. Ogbu, together with Maria Eugenia Matute-Bianchi (Ogbu, 1978; Ogbu & Matute-Bianchi, 1986), has developed a theoretical framework which classifies minority groups into involuntary (originally called castelike; see Foley, 1991; Trueba, 1991; for a discussion on the problems with this term) and voluntary minorities. Involuntary (non-immigrant) minorities are those whose incorporation into the dominant society was the result of slavery, conquest, or colonization, as was the case with African-Americans and Native Americans in the U.S. Voluntary or immigrant minorities are those who moved to their present societies "because they believed that the move would lead to more economic well-being, better overall opportunities or greater political freedom" (Ogbu 1991:8).

Ogbu makes a further distinction between primary and secondary cultural/language differences. Primary differences are those which existed before the two groups in question came into contact; secondary differences emerged subsequent to contact. Ogbu associates the latter case mainly with involuntary minorities, who often develop an oppositional identity, based on their interpretations of discriminatory treatment, which is perceived as being institutionalized and enduring (Ogbu, 1991, p. 16). One element of this discrimination manifests itself as a job ceiling, or formal and informal practices limiting access to desirable jobs (Ogbu ,1991, p. 10).

Ogbuís framework is too general to be more than a point of departure in the study of immigrant secondary students. As Matute-Bianchi notes in her study of Mexican-descent students in central California, many students "do not fit neatly into either the immigrant or nonimmigrant ethnic identification system" (Matute-Bianchi, 1991, pp. 210-11). In a sense, most Ė if not all Ė minority school children are involuntary minorities, since they almost invariably have not decided to live and study in this country, even though their families may have immigrated voluntarily (the most common exception to this may be foreign exchange students). Minority studentsí families may to varying degrees maintain pride in their primary culture and language, they may value education to a greater or lesser extent, and they may or may not have developed some form of oppositional identity. These differences are likely to have cognitive, emotional, and social consequences for the studentsí performance in school, but the degree to which this is the case can vary enormously from group to group and from individual to individual.

Some researchers have expanded Ogbuís framework to underscore the importance of race in immigrant studentsí experiences and perceptions of their opportunity to succeed in American society. In a study of Russian and Korean immigrant high school students in Los Angeles, Tuan (1995) found that although both groups of students associated primarily with co-ethnics and were perceived by school authorities as displaying "clannish" attitudes, they were at the same time perceived as being college-bound, high achievers. The groupsí school experiences and the strategies they employed to get to college, however, followed different paths. Korean students, as nonwhite immigrants, were discriminated against and excluded in ways that the Russian students, as white immigrants, were not. The Koreans, therefore, decided to work hard in school and try to ignore attacks and avoid confrontation.

The Russian students, on the other hand, did not feel the racial tensions of their Korean counterparts. At the same time, they had experienced their schools in Russia as more advanced and demanding. Wanting to get a university education, they became impatient in high school, and in many cases left to go straight into a junior college. Both groups, then, successfully negotiated their way into tertiary education. The author warned, however, that if Ogbuís framework was applied to explain the Korean studentsí situation, an important shift may be missed. In Ogbuís terms, the Korean immigrant students would be classified as voluntary minorities since their families moved to the U.S. for economic reasons, and the possibility of returning home was open to them. According to Ogbu, immigrant voluntary minorities are inured to the psychological cost of discrimination. Tuan comments, however, that Koreanís experiences "suggest that concerns over racial exclusion and targeting may well be perceived as a lasting threat." (p. 126) If this were the case, it may be that nonwhite voluntary immigrant groups may "end up adopting some of the same characteristics assigned to involuntary groups such as disenchantment with and rejection of the host society" (p. 127). For the most part, however, Korean immigrant studentsí strategies were additive and not oppositional.

Multiple Worlds, Multiple Transitions

Ann Phelan and her colleagues focused on the multiple boundaries that students must negotiate every day between the worlds of family, school, peers and friends (Phelan, Davidson & Cao, 1991), with their varying systems of norms, values, beliefs, expectations, and actions. The study illuminates the difficulty immigrant secondary students have in crossing worlds that are not congruent or conversant with each other, when success in school often times comes at the expense of negating family and old friends. For example, immigrant students may not let their parents know about school functions or meetings because they are embarrassed that they speak and behave in ways different from those expected in school, or they disassociate from their neighborhood friends or relatives because they are not school oriented. For some of these students, success is consciously fabricated by carefully studying the different "cliques" in school and their behaviors, imitating desired ones to negotiate their entry into those circles. The process illustrates the importance of developing accepting and nourishing climates in school, of understanding the tensions created by diverse worlds, and of helping students become aware of their options. Acceptance, however, is seldom complete; it may work in some classrooms, but not necessarily beyond them, producing isolated teenagers within the school, in the neighborhood and at home.

Alienation and gangs

For many immigrant youngsters, there are practically no safe havens from the violence that plagues inner cities, small towns and now even rural areas. Increasingly we see violence entering school campuses, diminishing the possibility that schools can be perceived as safe zones for youth. If immigrant students find themselves rejected by teachers, school personnel, and classmates, they will look elsewhere for the trust and sense of belonging that is denied to them in school and other institutions (Vigil, 1993a; Heath & McLaughlin, 1994) Milbrey McLaughlin and colleagues (1994) studied the successful building of community that some neighborhood organizations have managed. They underscore the importance of youth organizations and activities that are rooted in the local community and informed by local knowledge, that engage young people in the shaping of the organization and its tasks, that, in other words, view teenagers as participants and contributors to the solution, not as the problem. These organizations reach, motivate, and work with youngsters who many dismiss as irredeemable or useless. Key elements of these "wizards" -- a term applied to the successful neighborhood organizers because "they have succeeded where so many have not" (p. xvii)-- is a love for young people, a strong sense of mission, indefatigable commitment to their work and a passion for a particular activity that will be central to the organization, such as drama or athletics. There is a desperate need for urban sanctuaries of the kind described by Mc Laughlin et al. where teenagers can feel comfortable, safe, positively engaged and challenged by welcoming others.

Alienation is not only felt in schools and community. At times immigration and adaptation to a hostile and complex environment have so completely disrupted family life and traditional values that home can no longer provide a place of security and affiliation. Under these circumstances, the only security for some immigrant teenagers --as the Vietnamese boys and girls that Vigil studies-- comes from the gang (Vigil, 1993b). Since no single factor -- economics, family breakdown, the historical dimensions of a person or a cohortís life, social control, strain, and so on -- can by itself explain gang participation, Vigil elaborates a multiple marginality framework in which most elements which had previously been used to explain gang theories are integrated in a dynamic way, to understand individual cases of teenagers in gangs, including immigrant youth.

Not all troubled immigrant teenagers turn to gangs, though, and only some cross over into mainstream society partially and at will; thus it remains important to treat immigrant students as individual cases, although the forces that trigger their behavior, such as societal stratification, can be studied systematically .

The presence of gangs does not only pose a problem for students. Teachers of immigrant students also feel the impact of violence in school and are faced with a very difficult situation, usually beyond their power to fix. Susan Katz Weinberg (1994) tells the story of Elvin, a 15-year-old Latino student in her seventh grade ESL class, who confessed he had participated in some drive-by shootings, and whose trust in her put her in an ethically complex situation:

one day in late September, he pulled out his gun to show me. Shocked, I was very torn about what to do. Elvin trusted me. If I reported him, he would get expelled and only be out in the streets even more. If I did not report him, I would be delivering the message that I condoned the possession of guns at school. After hours of internal struggle, I finally reported his action to the vice principal, and Elvin was expelled the next day. Expelled to nowhere. He hasnít been to school since (p.2)

This is just one of many difficult situations that teachers and students face in many urban schools serving immigrant students.

Gangs, alienation, low social status, prejudice, all are part of the "new world" that many immigrant, non-white students face; these issues shape their educational experiences in complex ways that teachers need to understand if they are to teach them well.

Negative Attitudes Toward Immigrants

Another very serious issue immigrant students face is negative public perceptions of them and the increasing intolerance in this country for the presence of certain immigrant groups. In the current public debate on immigration and bilingualism, one often hears people say that there is a difference between the old wave of immigrants to the United States and the more recent one. In these peopleís perceptions, the former immigrants assimilated to American culture and the English language quite rapidly and were thus able to advance themselves, while more recent immigrants hold on to their culture and languages, do not learn English, and consequently do not succeed in society. In order to address this belief it is important to analyze the development of this myth historically, economically and politically, and finally within the changing context of contemporary American schooling.

Where does the myth of "new" vs. "old" immigrant groups come from?

While the unofficial U.S. language policy has fluctuated between periods of tolerance for many languages to the requirement of English only, by the third generation of settlement in this country, every immigrant group has spoken English (Veldman, 1983, Pease-Alvarez & Hakuta, 1993). If anything, the current shift from the immigrant language to English is accelerating and is achieved in two, and sometimes one generation (Hakuta & DíAndrea, 1992). Even though language policies have not been consistent, a selective memory of the past has remained constant. The first attempt to document the differences between "new" and "old" immigrants occurred in 1911 through the Dillingham Commission, which after four years of study produced a forty-two volume report that lent legitimacy to the fear that Italians, Jews, Greeks and Slavs --unlike their German, Scandinavian and Irish predecessors -- preferred to isolate themselves, away from native Americans and older immigrants; this practice resulted in failure to assimilate and perpetuated their poverty. The report also noted these groupís "backwardness" in the acquisition of English.

As Hakuta documents in Mirror of Language (1986), the commission paid little attention to its own data. They did not take into consideration, in making comparisons among groups, the length of time new immigrants had had to settle in their new country. Had this comparison been included, the characterization of new immigrants would have applied equally well to the initial wave of other groups. The report drew a very clear line between "old" immigrants from northern Europe who had come roughly before the early 1880ís, and rapidly assimilated, and the "new" immigrants, poor, unskilled and ghettoized, about whom all kinds of negative associations were made. The Dillingham report, although full of interpretive errors, helped to perpetuate negative stereotypes and divisions, this time with the support of what was perceived as a serious study.

Once the problem was identified, a solution could be proposed: the "Americanization" campaign of the new immigrants started. Philanthropists working through organizations such as the YMCA launched efforts designed to teach adult immigrants English and the American values of free enterprise. Industrialists joined in this crusade after a successful strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts was coordinated in more than twenty languages (Crawford, 1989). This was proof that multilingualism and lack of assimilation could cause political unrest and economic suffering.

A strong link between English proficiency and political loyalty had been forged in the U.S., and it was felt that if an immigrant did not speak English, he was probably a traitor to his new country. In 1915 the National Americanization Committee started a project called "English First" in Detroit, with the support of the local Board of Commerce. Employers required that foreign-born workers attend Americanization classes to promote the assimilation of new arrivals into American culture and the English language, giving up their own in the process. Simultaneously it was suggested that in order to stop the problem from proliferating, the immigration of southern and central Europeans should be restricted by the establishment of some "quality control over the flow of immigrants" (Kamin, 1974).

In similar fashion, today we see a resurgence of the issues of positive "old" versus negative "new" migratory waves, calls for the restriction of certain types of immigration, and the idea that English should be the "glue that holds the country together" (Roth, 1995). And once again, in addition to ethnicity and language, the other reasons triggering the concern and the misinterpretations are economic and political.