Don't know no English….

The La Times reports that the Cal State system is kicking out kids that can’t pass remedial Math & English. Check this:

…The most common problem is critical reading skills, and Cal State officials attribute that partly to the large number of students from immigrant households in which English is not the primary language.


In at least one way, Hoang fits the profile of students who struggle in English reading proficiency. Although English is her first language, she speaks Vietnamese and Chinese at home with her Asian immigrant parents.

If you can’t pass remedial English-but you say that it is your “first language,” then: either you are a moron who shouldn’t be in college, or English really isn’t your first language and you should go take some courses in junior college.

I have personal experience with this. My family would speak English now and then when I was a little kid in Bangladesh, but I basically came to this country hardly knowing a word when I was 5. I was fluent in 2 years (passable in 6 months) [1]. Learning a language isn’t that hard when you’re a little kid unless you are chronically stupid, in which case you shouldn’t be going to college. Either these were kids thrust through bilingual education, or they went to crappy public schools that didn’t teach jack and socialized only with their own ethnic group and didn’t develop cross-cultural English skills (there are plenty of cases where people talk a certain way with their own folk, but in the wider world use respectable speech patterns). My parents never spoke English at home, but I knew what to yell when I was beating the shit out of the freckled-faced Irish kid that lived down the street. I didn’t have any brown guarding my back, and there wasn’t a posse of Bengali kids I would run around with making my own hybrid English that won’t get you a 200 on the SATs. Thank god(s) for me. You do some sink or swim with kids, and they’ll swim. It’s in our genes.

Well, if you’re 20 years old and in this position of having to learn real English (when I mean real I mean Tom Brokaw type lingua franca, not Singlish, Spanglish or whatever else languages/dialects are spoken within communities)-tough, you have to go to junior college and learn real English that can at least pass the mark of USA TODAY. Assimilation takes time, and if you are expecting kids out of culturally isolated ghettos or barrios to be able to master subjects which require an understanding of the general colloquial you are being naive and setting them up for failure.

[1] Bengali does not have gendered pronouns, so it took me two years to figure out that girls should be addressed with “she” rather than “he”-that was my great stumbling block until the end of 1st grade.

Diane adds: A personal contribution, an observation, and a question. My parents both spoke another language (Yiddish) at home, until they were six*, when they went to school and were simply expected to learn English. Fast. They were totally surrounded by other Yiddish-speakers. Yet they learned English in school. Fast. Discuss. (My own speculation is that (a) the children of the immigrants–not all Jewish, this was the case with the children of all the other immigrants as well–were simply expected to learn the language of the dominant society, no excuses. I also speculate that although they were living in poverty-stricken ethnic ghettoes, they were actually less ghettoized than today’s Spanish-speaking migrants.)

Observation. As readers of my blog may know, I spent a couple of years in Israel. My Hebrew never got terribly good, because I was always able to sell myself on my English-language skills. This was during the time of the airlift of the Ethiopians to Israel. At one point I took a Hebrew-language course in a desert town. Next to the school was an absorption-center which was full of Ethiopians. A large group of Ethiopians started out around the same time as we did. Quite a contrast: my group were all Western university graduates, many with advanced degrees. They were penniless refugees from a war zone.

One peculiarity of this absorption center was that it wasn’t isolated (many of them are, arising from a totally mistaken notion that immigrants ought to be “eased” into a new society), it was in the middle of an apartment block inhabited by Israelis, so the Ethiopian kids played with natives. After four months, the children were chattering away merrily in near-native Hebrew. While we Western-educated smartasses were still struggling with a still impenetrable, utterly foreign language.

The key to both stories is isolation and its converse, social mixing.

Question: does anyone think that this story has any relevance to language acquistion?

*In those days there was no kindergarten.

Color of Fame

There is a cuteness competition over at TV GUIDE ONLINE on their You Sexy Thing feature. One of the girls is eligible for underrepresented minority scholarships and is a fast rising starlet of color, while the other is a typical “all-american” of oppressor stock.

On your left, Alexis Bledel of Gilmore Girls, half Argentine-American & half-Mexican-American. She grew up speaking Spanish. I wonder if she put “Latino” under the ethnicity box when she applied to NYU? To the right, Katie Holmes of Toledo, OH, going to school up the island at Columbia.

Lest darkness fall….

Rioting in Ivory Coast because the French brokered peace. What more can I say? The Arabs are clever enough to be dangerous to the rest of us, but the Africans, alas, only they need fear their fever dreams and hauntings. France is the last of Africa’s Romes. Will an Arthur arise when the legions leave the dark continent to its own wild splendor? Ah, but Arthur fell, never to return, no matter what is whispered in the epics past. The Saxons, Angles and Jutes come, and the black night of paganism will cloak the land….

No doubt the Pope in Rome will pray for the Christians who will suffer barbarism in the ages to come just as he did in ages past.

Enlightened noblesse oblige

Please make sure to scroll down and read the next entry on genes & IQ if you haven’t!

Ruben Narvarette is angry at what he sees as liberal racism. He notes:

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had appeared on the show moments before Mr. Lieberman. Asked her view of affirmative action, Dr. Rice said she thought that colleges should be able to consider race as one factor in an applicant’s portfolio but that the Michigan program – which includes a point system – might have gone too far.

When he got his turn, Mr. Lieberman disagreed. He said that the Michigan program was perfectly fine and that minority applicants simply are given a hand up.

In fact, Mr. Lieberman insisted, “it is exactly programs like the Michigan program that helped a star like Condi Rice get to where she is today.”

Does Lieberman assume that society is so racist that no competent black American could reach the commanding heights of success and prestige without affirmative action? I doubt it, but the stain is strong enough to smear the mighty as well the meek of the darker persuasion. I wonder how he would feel if someone asserted that if he was not a religious Jew his pious and sanctimonious lectures to the rest of us not backed up by the teeth of any legislation would be ignored as moral belching rather than considered as some point holding great Talmudic gravitas (he talks a conservative game, but votes a liberal score-in the same mold as politicians that promise more services and fewer taxes. They deserve nothing but our contempt).

[The Condi/Lieberman quotes seem to be out of context-so it doesn’t support my general point-I guess it points out the weakness in relying on secondary material and not checking the primary]

As John McWhorter recounts in Losing the Race, affirmative action taints all blacks who achieve success. Any black American that speaks up against it is automatically open to accusations of hypocrisy. Well yes, true enough, some black conservatives would probably be obscure academics without any platform to speak from if not for affirmative action. And yet, there is no doubt in my mind that there would still be a reasonable number of black Americans in prominent places without affirmative action. But it is hard to judge who is who, and so the stain adheres to all. I think it is highly plausible that affirmative action has benefited black Americans as a group in many ways. It has surely helped many individual black Americans materially [1]. But, who would deny that on the individual scale it has leeched some of the sense of accomplishment that one might feel, and also added a discounting factor in the esteem of their white “peers”.

I know this personally as someone who is an Asian-American according to the Census. Many of my friends in high school with lower grade point averages and SAT scores would casually assert that I had it easy as far as scholarships and college admission went because of my race. This is highly debatable, Asian-Americans are not an “underrepresented” minority as far as academics, and are overrepresented in elite universities and rigorous majors (I also never checked any of the race boxes, though I suspect anyone could surmise that I was of non-European extraction by my name). I suspect it was a way for some to make themselves feel superior-for they had to live up to a different, shall we say higher, standard, and so could be forgiven their milder successes. I saw the same thing in college where a friend of mine of half-Asian heritage racked up a sizeable number of scholarships after his freshmen year. A very liberal (a self-described “radical feminist”) friend of his commented off-hand that Tom (not his real name) was lucky, because as a minority he had a lower standard for scholarships (both had the same majors, but Tom had a far higher freshmen GPA than my radical feminist friend, perhaps explaining the differential in scholarship yield. But some see race as the root of all differences!). Of course, Tom became incensed at this because he was convinced that being Asian-American had disadvantaged him. He had taken the precaution of checking his race as “white” (he could pass as white on appearance alone) to any college he applied to where Asian-Americans were wildly out of proportion during his senior year in high school (which generally meant schools in California). Additionally, I remember a Korean-American acquaintance of mine becoming red-faced when telling the story of a girl he knew who dismissed his acceptance to MIT as being eased by affirmative action (Korean-Americans are about 10% of MIT’s undergraduate class according to some friends of mine who were in the Korean American Christian Fellowship with me). The skeptic of my friend’s credentials herself had been rejected from all the elite engineering schools she applied to, so he felt she was using his race as a way to level the playing field and boost her self esteem (He also recalled that he almost blurted , “Well you’re a woman, so you had it easy too!”. He was too much the gentlemen to point this out).

Affirmative action exists. Any minority (depending on context) can benefit, so any minority who achieves anything might have benefited. So any minority that objects to it might be a hypocrite (in circumstance if not intent). The insinuation of might quickly becomes the certainty of is in the minds of many.

I do not deny that most white males of the liberal political inclination have altruistic motives in mind when promoting affirmative action-on the conscious level. But one certainly can’t deny that one side effect is a subtle reinforcement of the idea that white males stand uppermost in the great chain of being, possessed of such a generous nature that they allow others to live by lower standards and more bestial morals [2]. Just as Jim Crow or apartheid allowed the least among whites to be more than the highest of “niggers” or “kaffirs”-affirmative action allows the least among white males to remember that even the mightiest of folk of color are held to a lower standard than they (and to be fair, the best will always be safe, so they can support affirmative action without worrying about the negative consequences on them individually-while basking in the added moral legitimacy). In the back of their minds, “But for affirmative action go I….”

“The difference between us is this: you think of yourself as a black man, I think of myself as a man….”

— Sidney Poitier’s character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

[1] Of course, there goes the argument that affirmative action acts as a discounted variable. For instance, John McWhorter has argued that the low grades of blacks in their undergraduate years is partially attributable to the fact they expect to get into graduate school with lower grades. But someone supporting affirmative action will ignore this “what if” and simply assert that blacks get low grades, so affirmative action is necessary to create diversity (they will explain low grades of course, but generally assign the blame to poverty & societal racism rather than the individual’s ability to make rationale decisions. If a 3.8 is not necessary to get you into med school, but rather a 3.0 would be sufficient, one might conclude that the 0.8 grade-point average difference can be converted into many extra hours that can be reallocated to personal activities)

[2] The mildly genocidal Milosevic is hauled before the War Crimes Tribunal, while the maniacal Mugabe is invited by the government of France to come to a conference. Ah, but he is but black….

Update: From the message board….

The following is a post I made earlier, but I feel it’s of great importance concerning the nature of race as it relates to affirmative action:

Hmm… all this talk of affirmative action in college campuses has got me wondering…

According to the last census, 13% of Canada’ population now consists of visible minorities. Yet, interestingly, not a single University in Canada has adopted a race-based affirmative action policy in its college admissions process.

This may be due to the fact that most of Canada’s visible minorities consist of high-performing Asians – Chinese and Indians who don’t require affirmative action to get into the elite colleges like the University of Toronto or Unviersity of Waterloo. There was actuallyl national outcry here recently over a federal MP who bemoaned that university spots in Canada were being swallowed up by an “Asian invasion”.

Of a total population of about 31 million, Chinese now number close to 1.1 million and South Asians about 0.9 million. There are few Blacks (in relation to the American or British Black population) and hardly any Latinos. The link to the Statistics Canada Census Bureau.

I just read in the last American census that Hispanics have now surpassed African-Americans as the largest minority group. This means that 25% of America is now Black/Latino. If immigration is the future, this could pose some deep and unsettling problems for our neighbours to the south. If America’s progress becomes stunted by a growing population of underperforming minorities, then America may very well soon be overtaken by nations that attract and accept industrious East and South Asians, such as Canada and Australia.

New genes for IQ

From the journal Cell (one of the holy Trinity of journals…at least to biologists), we have the following article on the BDNF gene (subscription required). A juicy excerpt for our crew of bloggers:

“Our results also speak to a current debate about the genetics of human intelligence. Specific cognitive abilities are partially correlated, and the extent of this correlation is referred to as ”g”, synonymous with IQ. Much genetic epidemiological data suggest that the genetic determinants of different cognitive abilities largely overlap with each other and with IQ. In other words, genes influence specific cognitive traits by virtue of their ”top down” effects on g (Plomin, 1999 ). The alternative ”bottom up” view that genes contribute to IQ primarily through their unique and more direct effects on specific cognitive modules has found little support. The present data are consistent with the latter formulation. We did not detect an effect of BDNF on IQ or any other cognitive ability (although we did not examine some other types of memory, such as priming, skill and habit acquisition, and fear conditioning). A recent study of the role of the COMT gene on working memory and prefrontal physiology, but not IQ, provides further evidence for this view (Egan et al., 2001b ). While COMT and BDNF may ultimately be shown to exert small effects on IQ, our current data suggest that their effects are somewhat specific and mediated through ”modular” cognitive elements.”

So, what Egan et al are trying to say is that (in their view, and this research) genes that create brain architecture exist primarily to perform that function–in this case, allowing for memory. Effects on actual IQ are secondary (and therefore probably not selected for). Interestingly, this is one of the comments I left on Richard Bennet’s blog–in my opinion, after a certain point, IQ is not really “needed” for survival advantage. If this is true, group differences in IQ may purely be due to genetic drift, sexual selection, or a combination thereof.

In the behavior department, another article on genes and aggressiveness came out.
An excerpt:

“People who are over-aggressive or excessively anxious may be missing a gene, say scientists who conducted experiments on mice. The gene, called PET-1, was removed from specially-bred mice by scientists at Case Western Reserve University in the US. They found that the mice had heightened levels of both anxiety and aggression – when the mice were given a “territory”, their response time to attack an intruder was significantly lower than a normal wild mouse, and they tended to launch an attack more often. “

Again, deleting a gene is a far cry from likely naturally occuring human variants, but this research is pointing to some genetic reasons for differences in aggression levels in humans.

Oh, by the way, the original article is in Neuron (one of the holy Trinity of journals for neuroscientists)