Politics & Government

Hispanics take up English the old-fashioned way

WASHINGTON — Just like previous immigrant groups, Hispanic immigrants in the United States speak little English in the first generation, but English dominates in the lives of the second generation and Spanish fades in the third, according to a study released Thursday.

The classic pattern, reported by the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington-based nonprofit research group, partially counters concerns raised in immigration debates that Hispanics in the United States will cluster in Spanish-speaking enclaves rather than assimilate and learn English, as previous immigrant groups have done.

The study found, however, that Hispanics of Mexican origin — who predominate in the largest U.S. immigrant influx in a century — are the slowest to adopt English in succeeding generations.

The study also offered no estimate of how long assimilation might take.

According to Pew senior writer D'Vera Cohn, a co-author of the analysis, picking up English is key to assimilation "because it's how people get a better job, talk to their neighbors, talk to their child's teacher and fit in generally."

Among the findings:

  • Only 23 percent of first-generation Hispanic immigrants say they're fluent in English. That rises to 88 percent in the second generation and 94 percent in the third. Reading English with ease follows the same pattern, but the percentages are slightly lower.
  • Half of the adult children of Latino immigrants speak some Spanish at home. That falls to a quarter or less in subsequent generations.
  • Among Mexican immigrants, 71 percent say they speak English only a little or not at all. For South American-born immigrants, the figure's 44 percent; for Cubans, 57 percent; for Central Americans, 62 percent; for Dominicans, 64 percent.
  • Half of Mexican immigrants report that they speak only Spanish on their jobs, the highest rate of any Hispanic group.
  • Mexican patterns are especially important to the big picture, said Rakesh Kochhar, Pew's associate director for research, because Mexican immigrants make up 64 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population.

    Kochhar said he suspected that heavy reliance on Spanish among Mexican immigrants reflected large numbers of recent arrivals and an education level that, on average, was the lowest among U.S. Hispanics.

    Jim Boulet Jr., the executive director of English First, a Springfield, Va., nonprofit group that advocates that everyone should learn English, called Pew's findings "no surprise."

    Boulet, a foe of bilingual education, added: "What we're seeing is that a lot of immigrants are learning English despite the government telling them not to."

    Responded Nancy Villarreal de Adler, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education: "The real question isn't whether or not children of immigrants can speak English, but whether they are literate or have enough education to have access to the opportunities that this nation offers."

    According to Cohn, it's impossible to know how quickly German, Eastern European, Asian and other immigrant groups took up English in the 19th and 20th centuries because no one kept the figures.

    For that matter, Pew's findings measure only English fluency and literacy in succeeding generations, not how long it took for individuals to adopt English.

    The findings are based on 14,000 interviews of legal and illegal adult Hispanic immigrants nationwide, conducted from 2002 to 2006.

    The interviews were for six separate Pew studies, each of which included very similar questions about fluency and literacy. Their margins of error varied from plus or minus 2.41 percentage points to plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.


    "English Usage Among Hispanics in the United States"