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Bilingual and struggling

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Olga Kagan, director of the Center for World Languages and National Heritage Language Resource Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, says more and more students of ethnic backgrounds want to learn their native language when they enter university. These students are identified as heritage language learners, and UCLA opened the resource center she runs in 2006 to meet that need.

"Now we are more aware of it. In the past, people didn't pay much attention to [learning their native tongue]," Ms. Kagan says.

Unlike Europe, where the younger generation in immigrant communities seems to be more successful at retaining its native tongue, children raised in America tend to only speak fluently in English. The Hispanic community, which represents the majority of bilingual Americans, may speak only English by the third generation. But the influx of new immigrants helps keep Spanish alive in the community.

The authors of the 2006 article "Linguistic Life Expectancies: Immigrant Language Retention in Southern California," in the Popu­lation and Development Review journal, contend that Hispanics in the Los Angeles area shift to English between the first and second generations and lose Spanish by the third.

Yet if children in other countries are capable of speaking at least two languages fluently, why can't American children do the same?

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