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Immigrants’ children grow up in dual-language world


When smiley 10-year-old Lourdes Martinez runs over to her mom and talks, she does it in Spanish.

But when she sits down on a sunbathed porch snuggling a little white poodle next to her dad, it’s all English.

Dad wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Being able to speak Spanish and English, it will open up doors for you,” 38-year-old Guillermo Martinez said in English. “It’s very important.”

And it’s increasingly common as immigrant parents with varied levels of English skills enter Kansas and their kids grow up in a dual-language world.

More than 10 percent of Kansas residents speak a language other than English at home, census figures released this month show. Nationally, it’s nearly 20 percent.

Although the numbers are growing, Martinez, who supervises the production department at a paint company, sometimes feels isolated. He said everyone he works with speaks only English and he feels pressure to speak it, too.

He believes people get upset when he’s talking on the phone in Spanish.

“They automatically assume that you’re talking about them,” he said.

That’s not the case.

“When I’ve got something to say about you, I’ll come to you and say it,” he said.

Then he conceded: “You can’t make everybody happy.”

Martinez came to Wichita with his parents when he was about 15.

“Like everyone, we came to work,” he said.

And he said he notices the local Hispanic population’s growth year after year.

The state’s immigrant population last year reached an all-time high of 173,394 up 67 percent from 2000, the latest figures show. If the foreign-born residents all lived in the same place, they would make up the second-largest city in the state.

Nationwide, the Census Bureau said, the number of immigrants reached 37.5 million in 2006.

The data come from the American Community Survey, an annual survey of 3 million households that has replaced the Census Bureau’s long-form questionnaire from the once-a-decade census. It does not distinguish between illegal immigrants and those who are in the country legally.

It also includes demographic data about housing, education and employment.

The figures show how immigration is affecting incomes and education levels in many cities across the country. But the effects have not been uniform.

In most states, immigrants have added to the number of those lacking a high-school diploma, with almost half of those from Latin America falling into that category.

However, at the other end of the education spectrum, Asian immigrants are raising average education levels in many states, with nearly half of them holding at least a bachelor’s degree.

“There is no one-size-fits-all policy that you could apply for all immigrant groups,” said Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau. “I think most of the attention has been on low-skilled workers coming from Mexico. But we have 10 million immigrants from Asia, a number that’s growing.”

The Kansas immigrant population is largely Hispanic, with 56 percent coming from Latin America. But more than 28 percent were born in Asia.

About 35 percent of the immigrants in Kansas last year had become American citizens. The figures do not reflect how many of the others were in the country illegally.

The figures came as no surprise to Wichita school officials, where the number of students from non-English-speaking homes reached 5,573 last year, up from about 4,900 five years earlier.

School spokeswoman Susan Arensman said not all of those students come from Spanish-speaking homes.

“We do have the heavy Hispanic population, but we also have Vietnamese, we have Farsi, we have Arabic. We have 71 different languages.”

She said the district tries to ensure that all students of foreign-born parents become fluent in English.

“We obviously want to teach them English as soon as possible so we can get them in the main classrooms where they can participate with the other kids,” she said.

Some children enter school already speaking two languages with nearly equal abilities in each language.

For example, Paulino Sanchez came to the United States from Chihuahua, Mexico, when he was 18.

He learned English, enrolled in college and graduated from Wichita State University.

When he helps his 5- and 6-year-old sons with their school work, he speaks English.

“But when I’m playing with them, I speak Spanish,” he said as the boys ran around with neighborhood kids yelling at each other in English.

He said he wants them to maintain their Spanish skills because it will open doors for them in the workplace.

“It’s an advantage,” he said.

Sanchez said some Hispanics feel ashamed to speak in Spanish some even feel it’s the mark of second-class citizens.

“It’s not a shame,” he said.

In his aviation industry job, he encourages several Asians to keep working on their English.

“You can do it,” he told them. “Anybody can do it.”

– Associated Press

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