Because of renewed immigration, fears about English no longer being the linguistic "glue" holding 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 U.S. 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 immigrant groups.
Nevertheless, speaking 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 U.S..
Historical 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 U.S. 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.
Nevertheless, the 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 (U.S.-born children with at least one foreign-born parent) and the third (or a later) generation (U.S.-born children whose parents are also U.S.-born) by linking children to their parents in the same household.
Findings on Linguistic Assimilation
The vast majority of first-generation immigrants who come to the U.S. 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
Bilingualism is 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.
Among 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, respectively.
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 percent.
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 home.
High immigration 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.
Bilingualism persists 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 U.S.-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.
Much 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 U.S., may move back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. with their families. Away from the border, Mexican-American children of the third generation are unlikely to be bilingual.
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.
The language 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 U.S., 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 U.S. 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 English well.
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 U.S., even by the American born. But, as history shows, this is not a radical departure from the American experience.
Two Albany graduate students, Karen Marotz and Jacob Stowell, assisted in the preparation of the census-data analyses on which this article is based.