Children of Hispanic Immigrants Continue to Favor English,
Study of Census Finds
New York Times
Dec. 8, 2004
By RACHEL L. SWARNS
WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 - English remains the language of choice among the
children and grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants, despite continuing waves of
migration from Latin America and concerns from some analysts that English may
lose ground to Spanish in some parts of the United States, a new analysis of
census data shows.
The study, conducted by researchers at the State University of New York at
Albany, is the latest foray in a fierce debate about whether the stream of
immigration from Latin America will challenge traditional assimilation patterns
charted by the descendants of European migrants.
Scholars say that the descendants of most European immigrants who arrived in the
late 19th and 20th centuries became exclusively English-speakers within three
generations. In recent years, some people have questioned whether the
descendants of Hispanic immigrants will follow suit, given the surge in
Spanish-speaking arrivals and the emphasis on multiculturalism and increased
The study, which examined data from the 2000 census, found that most
Hispanic-Americans were also marching steadily toward English monolingualism.
The report found that 72 percent of Hispanic children who were third-generation
or later spoke English exclusively.
The report suggested that the trend had generally continued among
Mexican-Americans, the country's largest immigrant group, even during the
immigration boom of the 1990's. In 1990, 64 percent of third- and
later-generation Mexican-American children spoke only English at home, the study
showed. By 2000, that figure had risen to 71 percent.
Richard Alba, director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and
Regional Research at SUNY-Albany, says the study suggests that many people have
underestimated the pressures of assimilation, which continue to drive immigrants
and their descendants toward English as they seek success in the American
Even for Hispanics in Los Angeles, a magnet for immigration from Latin America,
the pattern of language shifts across generations remained similar to
those among Hispanics nationally, he said.
"A number of people, whether from the left or the right, are underplaying
the contemporary signs of assimilation," Mr. Alba said. "They are viewing
American society as much more fractured along ethnic and cultural lines than
really appears to be the case. There are fault lines, but they are not as deep
as people think."
Mr. Alba reported some notable exceptions to the trend, finding that
larger percentages of Hispanics maintained bilingualism in the third generation
than did their earlier European counterparts. Such bilingualism mainly occurs in
communities along the Mexican border, where Spanish has been widely spoken for
generations, and among Dominican immigrants who maintain close ties to their
home country, the study found.
Samuel P. Huntington, a professor of political science at Harvard who touched
off a furor this year by warning that continuing high levels of Hispanic
immigration might "eventually change America in to a country of two languages,
two cultures and two peoples," said he agreed with Mr. Alba's findings.
But he said that Mr. Alba's study reflected the experiences of the descendants
of Hispanic immigrants who arrived in the 1960's, when the large waves of Latin
American migration to the United States were just beginning. He said the study
did little to predict the experiences of the grandchildren of more recent
In 2003, about 33 million foreign-born people lived in the United States,
accounting for nearly 12 percent of the population, census statistics show.
Fifty-three percent of those immigrants were born in Latin America and half had
arrived since 1990.
"We had this huge increase of immigration in the 1980's and 1990's. What will
the grandchildren of these immigrants be like?" Mr. Huntington said. "How will
they balance their conflicting identities as Hispanics, Mexicans and Americans?
It's going to be a very different situation. You can't simply assume that this
third generation that will emerge in a couple of decades is like the third
generation that exists now."
"If current trends continue," Mr. Huntington said, "we will move in the
direction of becoming a bilingual society. Is that going to be a disaster? Not
necessarily. But it will make us a different country than we have been in the
Mr. Alba said available statistics did not suggest a substantive change in
historical patterns. His view was echoed by Rubén G. Rumbaut, co-director of the
Center for Research on Immigration, Population and Public Policy at the
University of California, Irvine.
Dr. Rumbaut, who was a co-director of the largest multiyear survey of the
children of immigrants, said his findings showed that continued bilingualism
among Hispanics did not occur at the expense of English.
"It's additive, not subtractive," Dr. Rumbaut said. "English is still
overwhelmingly preferred, even by Mexican-born young people who came as young
children and are living on the border."