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New Study Suggests that Psychological Health and Academic Success of Hispanic Youth Improve as Ability to Speak English and Connect with non-Hispanics Grows

January 23, 2014
New Research
Education, Race/Class/Gender

Washington, DC  -  Hispanic teenagers who learn English well enough to engage in friendships and activities with members of mainstream U.S. culture are more likely to succeed in school and feel better about themselves and their futures, according to findings from “Cross-cultural Adaptation of Hispanic Youth: A Study of Communication Patterns, Functional Fitness, and Psychological Health,” published online today in the National Communication Association's journal, Communication Monographs.

The authors of this study found that the engagement of Hispanic youth in extracurricular activities and other English language-intensive contexts enhanced their language competence. This competence, in turn, further facilitated their relationships with members of the cultural mainstream and helped them gain access to information, resources and social support critical for their upward social and economic mobility.

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

The researchers gathered data by conducting one-on-one interviews with high school students from a region of the upper Midwest that included parts of Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. Students came from a mix of rural and urban schools that had both high and low percentages of Hispanic students. Interviews were conducted in the preferred language of participants—Spanish or English.

Two-thirds of the participants were of Mexican descent, with most of the others reporting Central American background. Some 68 percent were second-generation immigrants, 23 percent were foreign born and the remaining 9 percent were third-generation U.S. residents.

The researchers tested seven hypotheses concerning the causative links among language competency, communication with non-Hispanics, psychological health and academic performance. They found high ratings in each category were correlated with high ratings in the others.

“The study offered practical insights by highlighting the critical role that schools play in facilitating the successful integration of Hispanic youth,” McKay-Semmler said.  “By encouraging multiethnic interaction on group projects and extracurricular activities, schools can give Hispanic and other ethnic minority children important opportunities to enter the cultural mainstream. Study participants who had more contact and friendships with non-Hispanic Americans developed better English skills and felt more comfortable in the mainstream culture.”

The findings may be relevant to other ethnic minority students who need to toggle between home and school cultures. They show that friendships with members of the mainstream culture, and involvement in extracurricular activities, are essential to giving ethnic minorities tools they need to succeed in the larger U.S. society. One of the schools that participated in the research is piloting a program aimed at linking English-speaking youth currently involved in school or community activities with youth who are learning English and showing interest in extracurricular involvement, the authors write.

“These kids are crossing cultures every day,” said McKay-Semmler.  “Situated at the intersection of cultural diversity and the cultural mainstream, U.S. schools are uniquely able to provide children from multiple and varied backgrounds the communication opportunities and cross-cultural learning experiences that assist all youth in becoming successful members of the larger society.  Schools provide the essential communicative contexts through which adaptation occurs.”  

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The National Communication Association (NCA) advances Communication as the discipline that studies all forms, modes, media, and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific, and aesthetic inquiry. NCA serves the scholars, teachers, and practitioners who are its members by enabling and supporting their professional interests in research and teaching. Dedicated to fostering and promoting free and ethical communication, NCA promotes the widespread appreciation of the importance of communication in public and private life, the application of competent communication to improve the quality of human life and relationships, and the use of knowledge about communication to solve human problems. NCA supports inclusiveness and diversity among our faculties, within our membership, in the workplace, and in the classroom; NCA supports and promotes policies that fairly encourage this diversity and inclusion.

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