By Richard Alba
Because of renewed
immigration, fears about English no longer being the linguistic "glue"
America together are common. Some
commentators envision speakers of other languages seizing economic and
political power in large regions of the United States, creating
disadvantages for English-speaking Americans.
In a very different
vein, multiculturalists hope new immigrants' native languages will persist.
They believe bilingualism and language pluralism could usher in a new era
that breaks the hegemony of Anglo-American culture.
The underlying claim
of both viewpoints is that the past pattern – children and grandchildren of
immigrants who rapidly accept English – may be breaking down. Although some
changes have occurred, testing this claim using Census data reveals that
such beliefs are greatly exaggerated.
English is almost
universally accepted by the children and grandchildren of the immigrants who
have come to the
US in great numbers since the 1960s, which
means these children have high levels of linguistic assimilation. Moreover,
by the third generation (grandchildren of immigrants), only a minority in
any group maintains bilingualism.
Among Asian groups,
these minorities are so small that the levels of linguistic assimilation are
scarcely different from those of the past. Among Spanish-speaking groups,
the bilingual minorities are larger than was the case among most European
only English is the predominant pattern by the third generation, except for
Dominicans, who are known for frequent back-and-forth travel between their
homeland and the
Perspective on Linguistic Assimilation
There is a widespread
assumption that an older pattern of linguistic assimilation, evident among
the descendants of the European immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, no longer holds because of globalization and multiculturalism.
This earlier pattern involved a three-generation shift to speaking only
English, also known as English monolingualism.
The first, or
immigrant, generation typically arrived in the
US as young adults and
spoke mainly their mother tongue, learning just enough English to get by.
Their children, the second generation, were raised in homes where parents
and older adults spoke the mother tongue to them. However, they preferred to
speak English, not only on the streets and in schools, but even when
responding to parents.
When they were old
enough to raise their own families, they spoke English with their children.
Those children, the third generation, were thus the first generation to be
monolingual in English, though they may have learned fragments of the mother
tongue from their grandparents.
Although this pattern
did characterize the experiences of many European groups, such as the
Italians, it is nevertheless a simplification with notable exceptions. For
example, German speakers in the
Midwest were successful in maintaining
their mother tongue across generations. They founded many public school
systems that were bilingual in English and German; such schools lasted until
World War I. French Canadians in New England used bilingual and
French-speaking parochial schools as an anchor for maintaining French, which
was widely spoken until the 1950s.
contemporary immigration era is assumed to involve less pressure to
assimilate to speaking only English. The political struggles over "English
only" and anti-bilingual education legislation bear witness to the
widespread belief by politicians and a sizable segment of the public that
the pressure to assimilate linguistically must be intensified.
To test this
assumption, it is possible to analyze the home languages of school-age
children (ages 6 to 15) in newcomer families, as reported in the 2000
Census. This approach takes into account that the roots of bilingualism
typically lie in the language or languages spoken at home during childhood.
Relatively few people fluently speak a language learned only in school or
during adulthood. This analysis used a special version of the 5 percent
public-use sample data, known as the Integrated Public Use Microdata Samples
(or IPUMS), prepared at the University of Minnesota.
This allows for
distinguishing between the second generation (US-born children with at least
one foreign-born parent) and the third (or a later) generation (US-born
children whose parents are also US-born) by linking children to their
parents in the same household.
The vast majority
of first-generation immigrants who come to the
US as children
speak English well. Among
first-generation Mexican children, 21 percent do not speak English well;
among first-generation Chinese children, the comparable figure is 12
percent. In other words, 79 percent of first-generation Mexican children and
88 percent of Chinese speak English well (or very well).
Table 1: Percent
of Children Who Speak Only English by Generation and Group
common among second-generation children.
Most children who grow up in immigrant households speak an immigrant
language at home, but almost all are proficient in English.
second-generation Hispanics, 92 percent speak English well or very well,
even though 85 percent speak at least some Spanish at home. Eleven percent
of Mexican second-generation children speak only English at home, compared
to five percent in the first generation. However, for Puerto Ricans and
Cubans, two other large Hispanic groups, over one-fourth of the
second-generation are English monolinguals at 29 and 27 percent,
Among Asian groups, 96
percent are proficient in English and 61 percent speak an Asian mother
tongue. The levels of English monolingualism are notably higher among a few
Asian groups that come from countries, such as
India and the
Philippines, where English is an official language or is widely used.
There are a few groups
in the second generation where lack of English proficiency remains
relatively, but not absolutely, high. These groups fit into two general
categories. The groups in the first experience high levels of back-and-forth
migration, suggesting that some second-generation children have spent time
in their parents' home country. Groups in the second category include many
immigrant families that came as refugees, and, in some cases, have been
unable to integrate economically and socially with the mainstream society.
English-only is the
predominant pattern by the third generation.
These children speak only English at home, making it highly unlikely they
will be bilingual as adults.
Among Asians, the
percentage who speak only English is 92 percent, with the Chinese at 91
percent and Koreans at 93 percent. The only groups for which the level of
English monolingualism is below 90 percent are the Laotians, Pakistanis and
Vietnamese. Nevertheless, for none of these three is the level less than 75
The level of English
monolingualism is lower among Hispanics, but, at 72 percent, it is still a
clear majority. Sixty-eight percent of third-generation Cubans and 71
percent of third-generation Mexicans speak only English. Third-generation
Dominicans are an exception, with just 44 percent monolingual in English at
levels of the 1990s do not appear to have weakened the forces of linguistic
assimilation. In other words,
the incentives to convert to English monolingualism by the third generation
do not seem to have changed. Mexicans, by far the largest immigrant group
during the 1990s, provide a compelling example. In 1990, 64 percent of
third-generation Mexican-American children spoke only English at home. In
2000, the equivalent figure had risen to 71 percent. However, the level of
English monolingualism dropped from 78 to 68 percent among third-generation
Cubans between 1990 and 2000.
Table 2: Percent
of children speaking only English at home -
Comparison between 1990 and 2000
Among Asian groups,
there is little change one way or the other in levels of English
monolingualism, which are very high in the third generation. Among the
Chinese, for instance, the figure is the same in 1990 and 2000: 91 percent.
Among the Koreans, there is a small rise, from 90 percent in 1990 to 93
percent in 2000, while among Filipinos there is an equally small decline,
from 96 percent in 1990 to 94 percent in 2000.
to a greater extent among third-generation Hispanic groups, lending some
truth to the claims from nativist and multiculturalist perspectives that an
older pattern of language assimilation — mother-tongue extinction, in fact —
has broken down.
But English hardly
seems endangered. Not only is competence in English close to universal among
the US-born children and grandchildren of today's immigrants, but even among
those groups where bilingualism persists, the predominant pattern by the
third generation is English monolingualism.
third-generation bilingualism is found in border communities.
In places such as Brownsville and El Paso, Texas, the maintenance of Spanish
has deep historical roots and is affected by proximity to Mexico. Many
second-generation children, even though born in the US, may move back and
forth between Mexico and the US with their families. Away from the border,
Mexican-American children of the third generation are unlikely to be
Other areas where
Spanish has persisted are Miami, which has extensive connections to Latin
America, and several Northeastern regions, such as Newark and New York,
where Dominicans are concentrated.
assimilation patterns of today are not precisely those of the early 20th
century, but they do not appear to pose any threat to English as the
language that cements the nation and its culture.
The high migration
level of the 1990s did not affect the fundamental shift towards English
across the generations. Moreover, many of the main exceptions to the basic
pattern are found in border communities where bilingualism is a historically
rooted phenomenon, not one that has arisen from recent immigration.
Yet, bilingualism is
more common today than in the past. To some extent, most children of
immigrants speak the mother tongue at home, especially if their parents have
come from Latin America. However, if they are born and raised in the US,
they are highly likely to speak English well or very well. Among
second-generation Hispanic children, only eight percent are not proficient,
and some of those probably belong to families that move back and forth
between the US and their countries of origin.
By the third
generation, English monolingualism is the prevalent pattern. Bilingualism,
then, is very much a minority pattern by this generation. Virtually all
children and grandchildren of immigrants accept the necessity of learning
Both the anxieties
about the place of English in an immigration society and the hopes for a
multilingual society in which English is no longer hegemonic are misplaced.
Other languages, especially Spanish, will be spoken in the US, even by the
American born. But, as history shows, this is not a radical departure from
the American experience.
Richard Alba is
Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University at Albany, State
University of New York, where he also directs the Lewis Mumford Center and
the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis. His latest book, co-authored
with Victor Nee, is Remaking the
American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration (2003).
Two Albany graduate students, Karen Marotz and Jacob Stowell, assisted in
the preparation of the census-data analyses on which this article is based.
Source article at:
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