Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Study: English Ability Boosts Confidence

Hispanic teens who are better integrated with their English-speaking and non-Hispanic peers feel better about themselves and their future prospects than those who are segregated and less English proficient, a new study finds. 

The findings reveal the impact of English Language Learners’ communication abilities on psychological health. The report, “Cross-Cultural Adaptation of Hispanic Youth: A Study of Communication Patterns, Functional Fitness and Psychological Health,” was published online in the journal of the National Communication Association, Communication Monographs

“…Hispanic youth feel less alienated and more satisfied living in the U.S. as their English competence and connection with non-Hispanics grow,” the study’s lead author Kelly McKay-Semmler, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of South Dakota, said in a press release. “This was true whether the Hispanic students represented a small or large portion of the population of their school.”

The report’s findings were based on Spanish and English face-to-face interviews with 112 Hispanic high school students at schools in parts of Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. About 23 percent of the students were born outside of the United States and 68 percent were U.S.-born. 

McKay-Semmler added that integrated, multiethnic interactions helped strengthen students’ English and made them feel more comfortable in American culture. These interactions could include extracurricular activities and friendships. Through this lens, schools are seen as playing a critical role in integrating children into society. 

This brings to mind a few questions. Do students who attend heavily immigrant and Latino schools suffer as a result of their segregation? And when students are placed in bilingual or ESL classes, how does this impact how they see themselves? The high school with the highest percentage of Hispanic students in the study had an enrollment of about 48 percent. The school with the lowest percentage had about 2 percent. Therefore, the situation for Latino students who attend schools where they make up 80 percent or more of the student body could be very different. In many communities, it is not unusual for Latinos to attend such highly segregated schools.

The study cites other prior research which linked a lack of English proficiency to depression and internalized negative self-image. Meanwhile, English proficiency has been linked to higher self-esteem and worth.

Researchers asked the students questions about how often they interacted non-Hispanic teens in different contexts. They were also asked how satisfied with the treatment they received from non-Hispanics and whether they felt like they “fit in”. Their academic achievement was also measured.

While some of the questions were quite probing, the report did not directly quote the responses of any students. I do wish that the researchers had included quotes from the students, which would shed some light into their reactions to such pointed questions.