A review of the book “Why Don’t They Learn English?” By: Lucy Tse

Mary Kuchta

South Dakota State University


In the book “Why Don’t They Learn English?” Lucy Tse explains the common perceptions of today’s society and how immigrants respond to these assumptions. I will discuss these perceptions, how immigrants respond to these assumptions, and I will provide the answers to questions that are brought about by these perceptions and how they affect the lives and beliefs of the immigrants that come to the United States. I will provide personal examples from the book and from my own observations in the classroom. I will conclude with some of my own thoughts and views about the issue of language in this country.

In today’s society there are debates surrounding immigration, Bilingual education, and English as the official language. This dividing of public opinion is centered on the issue of whether or not immigrants are learning English and preserving their heritage language. “Why Don’t They Learn English?” by Lucy Tse is a book about the language debate in the United States. Lucy Tse addressed two important language-related issues in her book. The first issue that she addressed was the claim that immigrants don’t learn English. The second issue that she addressed was the common assumption that immigrants cling to their home language and perpetuate it from one generation to another.

One of the most prevalent beliefs in America today is that immigrants resist learning English. This belief is so widespread that legislation has encouraged immigrants and their children to learn and speak English. The first of the most recent series of proposed constitutional amendments was introduced in 1981 to establish English as the official language of the United States. The amendment, presented by Senator S.I. Hayakawa of Hawaii, was designed to outlaw the conduct of governmental business, including the offering of social services, in languages other than English. This amendment failed to pass Congress, but it energized the language debate (Tse, 2001, p.1). Individual states have also taken up the movement and have had more success. As of 2000, 20 states have official English laws and over a dozen other states have comparable types of legislation pending. In California, for example, the ballot initiative Proposition 227, requires that all instruction in school be given in English, limiting teachers from using other languages for instruction. This anti-bilingual education initiative passes in 1998 on the notion that students are not learning English well (Tse, 2001, p.2).

This idea that immigrants do not learn English and students don’t learn English well made me think about the students that I teach and the many comments that I hear from other people when this issue is talked about. Too often I hear the statement, “If they want to come to this country, they need to learn English.” I also have many students were English is their second language. Each student has a different story and a different situation. Some students struggle speaking English but are very fluent in their first language, some students are bilingual, and some students speak English very well and struggle speaking their first language. Tse addresses each situation separately in her book. Before she explained why each situation is different, she first put the reader into the situations that immigrants face when they arrive to the United States and focused on some key questions that are brought up on a daily basis in the United States. Are English-language learners resisting English? Are they unaware of the need to learn English? Are they and their children failing to learn the new language?

So, why don’t they learn English? Tse stated that this belief may stem from the apparent access to non-English languages in many communities in the United States. When we turn on the television we see Spanish-language programs, walking down the street we see billboards in non-English languages, and driving through many large cities we encounter store signs and services available in other languages. Faced with this apparent easy access to immigrant languages, one might conclude that immigrants are not learning English and are instead relying solely on their native language. But in fact the large majority of immigrants are learning English and learning it well. Tse mentioned that among students and other immigrants across the country, English fluency is a badge of prestige, a membership card for entry into the mainstream. English is one of the primary keys to fitting in and being accepted.

When immigrants come to the United States, they realize that in order to get jobs that pay well, they need to become fluent in English. They also want their children to learn English and send them to school in hopes of a quality education. So, what is the academic performance among children of immigrants? Why does it seem that some students learn English faster than others? In my classroom, I had three students that moved to the United States from Mexico this year. When all three students first came, each of them had very limited English skills, but by the end of the year two of them were able to pick up on statements much more quickly than the third student. I never did understand why, but Tse made some suggestions of why this may occur.

Students are learning English with remarkable speed, contrary to the public’s perception, but that’s not to say that all students learn the language at the same rate. According to Tse, studies show that factors related to income and education also affect how quickly immigrants will acquire English. For instance, students from wealthier homes are more likely to have received schooling in their native language back in their home country. More schooling in the native language helps immigrant students build more background knowledge in academic subjects so that when they arrive in the United States, they are better equipped to understand the tasks they encounter in school and pick up English faster as a result. Students from high-income homes may also have more education resources at home, such as books and reference materials. Finally, students from upper-income families may have more opportunities to interact with English speakers outside of the cultural community.

Tse stated that the quality of the child’s education in the first language, although not the only determinant, makes a critical difference for academic success. Children who enter U.S. schools having been formally educated in the home country may have two important benefits - background knowledge in school subjects and literacy in the native language - which contribute to educational success in U.S. schools. Students build on previous knowledge, so if they understand how to do some things in school from their own country, they can more easily adapt to school in the United States. If a first grade immigrant student walks into a math classroom in the United States with little or no previous schooling, than that student doesn’t understand the language of English and the language of Math. If a student had some schooling, than that student may understand some math and can build on that knowledge. Understanding the grammatical rules for the heritage language may also help a student pick up on the rules for learning English. Maybe the student, that didn’t pick up on English as quickly in my classroom, did not have as much previous schooling as the other two students. I don’t know what the situation was, but after reading this book, I realized that these students that struggle and seem to give up quickly might actually care about their education, but just are having a difficult time learning and understanding all the new things being thrown at them at one time. When these students get so frustrated in the classroom, they may feel so overwhelmed, they begin to act up and stop trying.

Immigrant students don’t only have difficulty in the classroom, but they also have difficulty outside the classroom. Immigrant students many times have a great deal of responsibility on them to help translate to their parents because their parents may not speak English or may not be able to read English. Studies of bilingual high schoolers who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, or a combination of these found that nearly all students surveyed had interpreted or translated for their families at one time or another (Tse, 2001, p.24). Tse gives an example of a situation of a student that has these responsibilities.

”Anita is the oldest child in her family and the designated translator. Anita is trilingual, having been raised in Mexico and then having immigrated to the United States at the age of 12. One day, just a few months after she immigrated, she sat at the kitchen table with her father to translate for him their mortgage statement. As we listen in, we hear her using three languages: Cantonese, her father’s native language; English, the language of the document; and Spanish, which both she and her father speak. In front of her are the mortgage document and two dictionaries: a bilingual English-Chinese edition and Standard English dictionary. When she comes across words she doesn’t know, she consults one or both of the dictionaries, shows the definition to her father in Chinese, uses Spanish to clarify or confirm the meaning, and eventually comes to some understanding of the unfamiliar English words. She has to understand not only the words on the page, but at least to some extent, also the complex principles behind mortgages and related financing concepts.”

(Tse, 2001, p.24)

Children such as Anita are critical to their families making the transition to life in the United States. Although children are not necessarily faster language learners, they typically have more opportunities to pick up the language from school and from peers. Parents who are still learning the language may, for a time, need their children to bridge communication, with the need for translating. I encounter this many times with my students. I know that during parent teacher conferences this year, I had students that had to translate what I was saying to their parents. For me, this was the first time I was around parents who could not speak English and I was amazed at how well the students did interpreting for their parents.

So, why do the students have to translate for the parents? Are the parents not trying to learn English? Tse goes about explaining different reasons why adults may struggle learning English. Arrivals in earlier periods in history could labor on farms, work in factories, and build railroads without speaking fluent English or possessing much literacy. Today’s service-oriented economy requires English ability for all but the lowest paying jobs. According to Tse, new immigrants understand this reality and much of the time the adults are highly motivated, but there are few English-language-learning support services. In most cities, there are waiting lists from several months to several years for immigrants wishing to enroll in ESL classes, and many rural communities lack ESL programs altogether. In addition to the lack of available programs, many immigrant households fall below the poverty line, and many adult immigrants work multiple jobs and long hours to make a living. Being economically poor and living from paycheck to paycheck limits the amount of time available to devote to formal language study, adding to other obstacles such as insufficient funds for tuition and child care. I know that many of the immigrant children, not all of them, in my school are on free and reduced lunches. So this phenomenon is quite common.

Yet another obstacle that immigrants and their children encounter is unrealistic language expectations expressed most often toward adult English learners. According to Tse, many times immigrants are learning English, but they don’t sound like native speakers. With their English having an accent, they may feel alienated from their native-speaking co-workers or are being the butt of jokes, being avoided, or being ignored. These experiences may motivate some to take classes and learn English well, but for some, it lowers their confidence and willingness to speak the language. The more uncomfortable learners feel using a new language, the fewer interactions they are likely to have with people who speak the language, which in turn limits how much they learn. By contrast, the more tolerance new language learners encounter, the more willing they are to use the language, and ultimately, to reach high levels of proficiency. A more effective strategy for encouraging language learning, then, would be to show acceptance rather than “tough love” disapproval.

The one student that I discussed earlier that really struggled to catch on to new material also kept to himself and had a very low self-esteem. I look back at seeing him walk through the halls and remember students talking to him and repeating what he said, copying his accent in such a way that was mocking him. He would just smile, but I am sure that this mocking hurt his confidence. I can see how when he first came to school, he was quite motivated to learn, but by the end of the year he wasn’t motivated to learn. He didn’t want to be there and all he wanted to do was go back to Mexico.

Since immigrants have to learn English, and some struggle more than others, do immigrants have a tendency to cling to their home language and perpetuate it from one generation to another? According to Tse, immigrant languages have short lives in the United States. By the grandchildren’s generation, the family stops using the non-English language at home, resulting in the third generation becoming largely monolingual in English. The push to learn English is so strong that language shift, switching from using primarily the heritage language to English, can often occur within a lifetime. Here is an example of a particular student experience.

”Rich arrived in the United States at the age of 4. As a child, he spoke only Cantonese in the home with parents, sisters, and relatives. When he entered school, he learned to speak conversational English quite quickly, and by the fourth grade, spoke primarily English with classmates and friends. English was everywhere in his life: He watched TV and movies, learned school subjects, and played with friends in that language. While he still spoke some Cantonese with his parents, he preferred to use English with his older sisters. By the time he entered junior high, Rick could speak to his parents in his heritage language about typical family and household topics, but had difficulty talking about matters outside of the home, including what he learned at school. He studied the food chain in science, but doesn’t know how to tell his mother about it over dinner in Cantonese. He would like to tell his father about his plans for the future, but doesn’t know the right words in Cantonese. By the time Rick graduates, he can “get by” in conversational Cantonese, but is far from fluent. What a difference 12 years makes: Rick has gone from being monolingual in Cantonese to being nearly monolingual in English.”

(Tse, 2001, p. 31)

According to Tse, there are several reasons why heritage languages fight an uphill battle in the United States. First, the push toward learning and knowing English, and only English, is overwhelming. English is the language of mainstream America and the mass media, the language of toys and games, and the language spoken by authority figures, such as teachers. Also, the negative consequences of speaking a heritage language can range from experiencing shame for being different to facing racist reactions in school, work, or community. To sound different is to be different. Another reason for widespread language loss is the lack of efforts in U.S. schools to help students develop their heritage language. These reasons all lead to the false assumption, that many immigrant parents operate under, that speaking a language other than English at home will hamper English-language learning and school success.

Many times immigrant parents may insist on speaking only English at home, even though the parents themselves are limited-English speakers and may have difficulty communicating with their children using the language. Why do parents make the decision to speak only English? According to Tse, some parents may want to protect their children from the discrimination they face as imperfect speakers of English. Parents who are ridiculed, ignored, or treated mockingly because of their heavily accented speech understandably want their children to avoid the same derision. This, together with the fear that passing on the native language will somehow limit English language learning motivates many parents to protect their children from this prospect. It is precisely because immigrant parents know the value of English that they decide to raise their children monolingually, often not seeing the long-term drawbacks of not passing on their heritage language.

What are some of the drawbacks of not passing on their heritage language? One of the most serious drawbacks resulting from language loss is the conflict that emerges between parent and child, and between child and heritage community. When a child does not speak the heritage language and parents only have limited English ability, a huge gap is created. A Korean child expresses this issue.

“It is frustrating when I’m speaking with my parents and we can’t fully comprehend what we’re trying to say to each other. I hate it when I eat dinner with my parents and they always carry on their own conversation that I can only half understand. Yet, they complain that we don’t eat as a family enough. I hate having something to say but not being able to say it.”

(Tse, 2001, p.52).

According to Tse, frustration and anger may result from these attempts to communicate. The impact of such language gaps should not be underestimated. Tension, frustration, and even fistfights have resulted from miscommunication. Miscommunication also contributes to the inability to convey even simple messages, undermining the parent-child relationship and limiting the assistance parents could provide in a wide range of matters.

Another drawback is that instruction and teaching materials may not be appropriate for these students, many of whom may have even advanced speaking ability but limited literacy. Encountering these adverse attitudes and getting inappropriate instruction lead to many to give up learning the language altogether and abandon the potential to become bilingual and biliterate.

What are some advantages for students to be bilingual? According to Tse, bilingual students are better readers in English and have higher academic aspirations than those who are monolingual in either their heritage language or English. Those who develop their heritage language and know English well do better in school than those who leave the heritage language behind. Being bilingual can also help with communication skills. Students that hold on to the heritage language can communicate better with their parents and others of their cultural background. A third benefit is an economic benefit. Those fluent in two languages tend to earn more and have more career options. According to Tse, Latinos in Florida, for example, who speak English very well and who also speak Spanish have annual median incomes about 20% higher than Latinos who speak only English. Another benefit is that the individual feels part of a group. If an immigrant can’t speak English well, then that individual is alienated from the mainstream English-speaking society. And if that same individual also can’t communicate well in his/her own heritage language, then that person is also alienated from people of the same culture.

Everyone wants to be successful, belong, and be able to communicate with others. By coming into a culture that focuses on learning and speaking only English, immigrants live with many obstacles to overcome. They want to learn English because they know the benefits of being fluent, but many times don’t have the means of learning because of their economic situation or lack of ESL programs. As these immigrants realize the importance of English in this country, they realize the importance of their children being fluent. Many times they underplay their own heritage language so that their children will learn and be only fluent in English.

I realized how quickly a language can be lost by an immigrant who came to the United States. When that person looses that language, I can see how communication with family, friends, peers, and co-workers can be difficult. I observed students in my own classroom that struggled on a daily basis with communication. I just assumed they would pick it up eventually and didn’t realize that they may not only struggle with English, but also their first language. Tse helped me to understand what the students might be going through. She also provided an explanation to why some of my students born in the United States, whose parents came from Mexico, do not know how to speak Spanish and struggle communicating with their parents. Some of these students seem to get themselves into trouble quite often. Miscommunication and misunderstandings can play a huge role. As a teacher I can encourage these students to hang on to their language and use it to their advantage. By encouraging them to use their own language, it may help these students to make connections in the classroom, improve their communication skills with others, and heighten their confidence.

The issue that I would have liked Tse to touch on would have been to answer the question of how we, as educators, can specifically help these students hang on to their heritage language and still learn English. We live in a world were international communication is vital to economies all over the world. Being bilingual has many benefits and I think this issue should be addressed more in our schools today.


Tse, Lucy. (2001). Why Don’t They Learn English? New York: Teachers College Press.