Racial Disparities in Language Learning

In my higher-level seminars, the lowest grades for every assignment are always those of Hispanic students. These courses are taught 100% in Spanish, and you’d think that a lack of a language barrier would help but nope. Never.

Another very low-performing group are African Americans. However! I have noticed that if I provide a free language tutor, black students are massively more likely to use the tutor’s services and they begin to close the gap extremely fast. I had 3 black students who were flunking out at the beginning of the semester. I deployed the tutor, and now all three are at low to mid Bs. And that’s in only 6 weeks. At this rate, they’ll be at an A by December. This tells me that their problem was bad language instruction in high school. In the 12 years that I’ve worked here, I’ve had exactly one black student who came to us without being handicapped at the level of the basic language skills. And in 12 years, we have graduated 4 black students total. Take into account that 15% of our students are black, and you’ll see that this is disturbing.

According to my observations, absolutely nothing helps advance African American graduation rates like free tutors. I’m so happy I came up with the plan to assign a GA to be a free tutor full time. (She’s free for the students but we pay her a salary and cover 100% of her tuition. I’m not exploiting anyone.)

All of the money that’s wasted on an endless procession of Vice Provosts for diversity, when instead we could hire an army of tutors and help these students. It’s a crying shame to have so many black students who take on debt to go to college and then have to drop out while we blab endlessly about our commitment to diversity.

9 thoughts on “Racial Disparities in Language Learning

  1. “their problem was bad language instruction in high school”

    IIRC an informal survey on linguist list years ago came to the conclusion that English speaking countries have the worst first language instruction in the world. Complex historical reasons for this but it’s impossible to make traditional grammar models (as practice in English speaking countries) work on a broad scale (and arguably they were never meant to).

    If I could wave a magic wand grammar teaching would be remodeled after what is taught to learners of English as a foreign language – it’s far superior to the ancient nonsense that native speakers are fed.

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  2. My theory about Hispanic students doing poorly in Spanish is two-fold. One, perhaps they only know how to speak dialectical Spanish and never learned to read or write it or any Spanish grammar rules. My family speaks Cuban Spanish and while I can speak it, I never learned Spanish grammar or how to read it so I was terrible in high school Spanish.

    The second part may be that the students are pressured into taking Spanish by counselors and don’t want to, perhaps they want to take other language classes or secretly resent their culture. All my life I’ve had a block about speaking Spanish or Hispanic culture, since I associated with my mother’s family in Miami. My aunt married young and had a lot of kids and her house was a chaotic mess with her kids, neighbors’ kids, the TV on and blaring, and the house smelling like fried food.

    As someone who likes order and quiet, visiting would be a nightmare. Plus I couldn’t relate to my cousins on any level since they live in Spanish bubble, don’t read, and have little engagement with American culture. I’d get teased for listening to alternative rock music, reading books, wearing band t-shirts and called a gringa. So it could be a combination of these, lack of knowing Spanish grammar, pressure from a counselor, speaking dialectal Spanish and secret resentment of their culture

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    1. I knew someone who did research on this with heritage speakers of Chinese taking Chinese at US universities a while back. Students who grew up speaking Chinese at home also tend to do worse in upper-level courses than students who learned it entirely in the classroom. Speaking dialects at home was part of the problem, but she found that it was also an issue that the university tended to have them start in courses that were too easy in terms of speaking because they tended to be very weak in reading and writing. The students found their first courses to be very easy, but they usually didn’t increase their efforts as the material became more difficult. By the time they were in higher level courses, those who grew up with Chinese at home were nearly always the weakest students in the group.

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      1. Chinese students do great in other subjects, though. While Hispanics underachieve at every level and worse than any other group, including African Americans.

        My explanation is that our education system doesn’t play to their strengths, to use an expression loved by education profs.

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        1. Interesting, than what are our strengths? I’m very quiet and learn by reading, please don’t say we’re verbal and loud and have good people. I’m a stoic who’s quiet and hates people, I was Scandinavian or German in another life 😅

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        2. Interesting. I don’t see many Hispanic students in my German courses, but the few that I do get tend to be really good. I think I’ve had a total of six Hispanic students in the past two years and all of them were solid A students. Of course, I suspect all of them were from reasonably well-off backgrounds based on the way they dressed and things they said about regular trips back to Mexico, Columbia, etc. to visit family and trips they had taken to Europe. I have no idea how Hispanics in general fare at my university.

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    1. We only hire native speakers, so Hispanic. We don’t have any Afro-Hispanic population in the region. This is strictly to practice the language, so they have to be native speakers and ideally recent immigrants.

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      1. Thanks. The reason I asked is because I was curious about whether tutors who are of the same race or background as the student would do a better or worse job.

        That curiosity arose because I personally think that some racial and ethnic groups do not promote learning within the group, or worse drag everyone into speaking improperly/only using slang. I also think and have observed that other groups tend to correct the hell out of each other and so raise the overall standard of the group.

        I wonder if anyone has been brave enough to formally test the theory. Finding out that, say, white people are better teachers for black people than black people are would be…interesting…for the researcher to publish.

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