Abstract

This article investigates the effects of ethnic acceptance and prejudice on English language learning among immigrant nonnative speakers. During 2004 and 2005, the author conducted participatory dialogues among six Vietnamese and Mexican adult immigrant English language learners. The researcher sought to answer five questions: (1) What are some nonnative English speakers’ experience regarding the way native speakers treat them? (2) How have nonnative English speakers’ experiences of ethnic acceptance or ethnic prejudice affected their learning of English? (3) What do nonnative English speakers think they need in order to lower their anxiety as they learn a new language? (4) What can native English speakers do to lower nonnative speakers’ anxiety? (5) What can nonnative English speakers do to lower their anxiety with native English speakers? Even though many of the adult immigrant participants experienced ethnic prejudice, they developed strategies to overcome anxiety, frustration, and fear. The dialogues generated themes of acceptance, prejudice, power, motivation, belonging, and perseverance, all factors essential to consider when developing English language learning programs for adult immigrants. In the United States, thousands of women, men, and children continuously confront challenges to their identity and sense of well being as they immigrate and acculturate into the American way of life. In an era of xenophobia, terrorism, and English-only politics, immigrant nonnative English speakers face ever-increasing stress, anxiety, and ethnic prejudice as they strive to become active participants in their new culture (Crawford, 2000). Their collective struggle motivates critical reflection upon immigrants and their experiences of ethnic acceptance and prejudice. Review of Literature In reviewing past research, one quickly discovers that little has been written on the effects of ethnic prejudice on English language learning among immigrants in the United States. In her doctoral dissertation, Shiels (2001) contended that ethnic prejudice is one LaBelle – Vietnamese American Experiences of English Language Learning 2 element in a series of factors that can increase enculturation stress. Krashen’s research (1985) has suggested that any factor that causes anxiety raises the affective filter of the second language learner. This anxiety results in a slowing or even an interruption in the acquisition of English by nonnative speakers. The relationship between ethnic prejudice and English language learning might go even deeper. Hirsch (1988) and Unz (NewsMax.com Wires, 2001) continue to contribute to and promote the English-only movement, overtly exhibiting an ethnic prejudice toward immigrant speakers. This prejudice is most evident when the immigrants’ nonnative English accent is rejected as inferior or substandard. In sharp contrast to such a position, Canale (1983) dismisses the term “standard” for English speakers, preferring communicative competence as the goal of second language acquisition (SLA). Because of the political sensitivity surrounding terms relating to ethnicity and race, researchers have only recently begun to address this anxiety-causing issue (Macedo, 2000). To what extent does ethnic prejudice impede the acquisition of English by nonnative immigrant speakers in the United States? Polio and Gass (1998) demonstrated that interaction contributes to a native speaker’s comprehension of nonnative speaker’s speech. Their study indicated that interaction is essential as a method of improving oral and aural comprehension between nonnative and native speakers of English. Clearly, such interaction is essential to facilitate the language learning process. However, one factor that may impede social interaction between native speakers and nonnative speakers is ethnic prejudice. Besides creating anxiety in the immigrant, ethnic prejudice breaks down the trust, openness, and mutuality that should be part of a healthy, normal conversation (Shiels, 2001). The flow of the interaction is broken and the tension detracts from the natural process that leads to developing communicative competence. From a sociocultural perspective, Alptekin (2002) asserts that acceptance and tolerance of ethnic diversity are necessary to foster and improve the acquisition of English by nonnative speakers. In a similar way, Schumann (1976) had already posited that, when acceptance and tolerance are lacking, a social distance is created which increases the difficulty of the acculturation and second language learning. In his research, Schumann studied various factors that led to social distancing or proximity in the language learning process, which in turn either promotes or slows the immigrant’s acquisition of the target language. Clearly, the quality and intensity of social interaction are essential to effective SLA. Even though past research has recorded great advances in the interplay between social interaction and SLA, investigation is still lacking that critically reflects upon the experiences of ethnic acceptance and prejudice from the viewpoint of immigrants themselves. In conducting participatory dialogues in Fall 2004 and Spring 2005 with Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants, this researcher documented the critical reflections of six adult immigrants regarding their experiences of both ethnic acceptance and prejudice as well as how these affect their English language learning. Their histories relate how they overcame anxiety and frustration to strive to learn the English necessary to succeed in American society. Prior to 1975, Mexican immigration dominated the statistics regarding the influx of new immigrants to the San Francisco Bay Area (State of California, Department of Finance, 2001). The official population statistics elucidate a changing blend of ethnic and Journal of Southeast Asian American Education & Advancement, 2 LaBelle – Vietnamese American Experiences of English Language Learning 3 linguistic factors in that particular state. One of several important demographic changes was the upsurge in the Vietnamese population after the fall of Saigon in 1975. These two ethnic groups, Vietnamese and Mexican, provide a unique and fascinating context in which to study factors that affect SLA among immigrants to the United States. This study examined certain sociological factors regarding the ease in which a nonnative speaker could acquire English. Krashen (1985) pointed to anxiety as a factor that raises the affective filter of the second language (L2) learner. He found that an increased anxiety level in the nonnative speaker resulted in a higher affective filter that blocked the language acquisition process. His hypothesis claimed that, by lowering their anxiety, immigrants could improve and facilitate their language acquisition. Research about factors that lead to anxiety, culture shock, and enculturation stress is extremely useful in promoting English language learning among immigrants (Adler, 1972; Berry, 1987; Krashen, 1985; Shiels, 2001). Hence, this research centers on the effect of ethnic prejudice upon the affective filter of the nonnative speaker. In the same year of the famous Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Allport (1954) defined ethnic prejudice as “an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization” (p. 13). This antipathy is felt, observed, or sensed by the immigrant and, in turn, increases his or her anxiety level. Such prejudice may be directed at a group or individual merely because he or she is of that group. Sometimes ethnic prejudice is overt, but more often it is of a covert nature (Kinder & Sanders, 1996). In order to uncover the ethnic prejudice experienced by nonnative English speakers, it is advantageous to learn from the participants themselves the nature of this experiential phenomenon. As more immigrants arrive in the United States, the need for increased attention to issues of SLA becomes more urgent. One particularly sensitive factor in SLA is ethnic prejudice and how it impacts the process of acquiring English among immigrants in general. Further, since many researchers are neither immigrants nor nonnative speakers, it is especially useful to hear nonnative immigrants’ own perceptions of the effect of ethnic prejudice on SLA. Such an approach helps promote a wider understanding, acceptance, and openness to varied viewpoints regarding the immigrant experience of adaptation, acculturation, and assimilation into an English-speaking environment.

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