ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A recent study out of Philadelphia tracked young children learning English. Over four years, the researchers saw a big discrepancy among groups of students in how they mastered the language. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Avi Wolfman-Arent reports.
AVI WOLFMAN-ARENT, BYLINE: Here's what the Philadelphia researchers found. Roughly 8 in 10 Chinese students tested as proficient, but only about 4 in 10 Spanish speakers could say the same.
ILANA UMANSKY: I have never seen any study that has looked at this question and not found this trend.
WOLFMAN-ARENT: Ilana Umansky studies English acquisition at the University of Oregon, and while she didn't conduct this study, she says what's true in Philly is true all over. Spanish speakers just don't seem to master English as quickly as other groups. But why?
UMANSKY: So we don't have a definitive answer to this question.
WOLFMAN-ARENT: Researchers do have some theories, though. And to help explain one, let's meet Jose Garcia. Jose left the Dominican Republic when he was 11 years old and moved to New York City.
JOSE GARCIA: There, they speak Spanish. So it wasn't, like, a big challenge for me because, you know, I speak Spanish. I used to hang with my people.
WOLFMAN-ARENT: When Jose went home, he heard Spanish - at school, more Spanish - on television, Spanish.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).
WOLFMAN-ARENT: It was like he never left his homeland. And his classmates...
GARCIA: They didn't want to learn it as fast because they didn't need to use it. They were speaking Spanish already.
WOLFMAN-ARENT: Jose wanted to learn English, but his first year in America points to one theory researchers have about this language-learning gap. Maybe Spanish speakers are actually hurt by the fact that there are so many of them. Nelson Flores grew up in a heavily Hispanic part of North Philly and could be a poster child for that theory.
NELSON FLORES: But even in a community like that, children learn English.
WOLFMAN-ARENT: Now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, Flores doesn't think Spanish speakers are actually struggling to learn English at all, at least not in the conventional way we think about learning languages.
FLORES: We're not talking about the ability to communicate in English. We're talking about the ability to do grade-level content in English.
WOLFMAN-ARENT: English proficiency tests measure a lot of things, including whether a student can read or write on grade level. And Flores thinks while a lot of Latino students speak English fine, they struggle to read or write in it, which makes you wonder why.
FLORES: We're really looking at a political and economic problem more than a linguistic problem, which may sound surprising for me to say that as someone who studies educational linguistics.
WOLFMAN-ARENT: Flores points out a lot of Spanish speakers in Philly and across the country attend segregated schools in impoverished neighborhoods where we've known for a long time kids tend to struggle.
FLORES: Because of all of these broader challenges that the community confronts.
WOLFMAN-ARENT: But poverty can't explain everything here. There have been other studies that control for family income and still find Spanish speakers lagging behind. And that brings us to a third theory. UCLA professor Patricia Gandara says you also have to look at the parents of Spanish-speaking kids, especially their education and economic status before arriving in the U.S.
PATRICIA GANDARA: It is vastly, vastly different than that of most Asian students and other language groups.
WOLFMAN-ARENT: Studies show the parents of Asian immigrants are more likely to have a high school or college degree.
GANDARA: So that explains just a great deal of why it is that these children are not able to perform at the same levels as other immigrant kids.
WOLFMAN-ARENT: Does that alone explain the huge language gap in Philly and other cities - maybe. Researchers still don't know for sure. They do know the number of Hispanic students in American schools is ballooning, which means they've got millions of reasons to solve the puzzle. For NPR News, I'm Avi Wolfman-Arent in Philadelphia.
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