Language Assimilation Today: Bilingualism Persists More Than in the Past, But English Still Dominates (Working Paper #111)

Richard Alba, University of Albany

Summary: Because of renewed immigration, fears about the status of English as the linguistic glue holding America together are common today. In a very different vein, multiculturalists have expressed hopes of profound change to American culture brought on by the persistence across generations of the mother tongues of contemporary immigrants. In either case, the underlying claim is that the past pattern of rapid acceptance of English by the children and grandchildren of the immigrants may be breaking down.

Using 2000 Census data, the Mumford Center has undertaken an analysis of the languages spoken at home by school-age children in newcomer families in order to examine the validity of the claim. We find that, although some changes have occurred, it greatly exaggerates them. 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. Moreover, by the third generation, i.e., the grandchildren of immigrants, bilingualism is maintained only by minorities of almost all groups. Among Asian groups, these minorities are so small that the levels of linguistic assimilation are scarcely different from those of the past. Among the Spanish-speaking groups, the bilingual minorities are larger than was the case among most European immigrant groups. Nevertheless, English monolingualism is the predominant pattern by the third generation, except for Dominicans, a group known to maintain levels of back-and-forth travel to its homeland.

Some of our specific findings are:

● Bilingualism is common among second-generation children, i.e., those growing up in
immigrant households: most speak an immigrant language at home, but almost all are
proficient in English. Among Hispanics, 92 percent speak English well or very well,
even though 85 percent speak at least some Spanish at home. The equivalent percentages
among Asian groups are: 96 percent are proficient in English and 61 percent speak an
Asian mother tongue.

● In the third (and later) generation, the predominant pattern is English monolingualism:
that is, children speak only English at home, making it highly unlikely that they will be
bilingual as adults. Among Asians, the percentage who speak only English is 92 percent.
It is lower among Hispanics, but still a clear majority: 72 percent.

● The very high immigration level of the 1990s does not appear to have weakened the
forces of linguistic assimilation. Mexicans, by far the largest immigrant group, 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.

● Much third-generation bilingualism is found in border communities, such as
Brownsville, Texas, where the maintenance of Spanish has deep historical roots and is
affected by proximity to Mexico. Away from the border, Mexican-American children of
the third generation are unlikely to be bilingual.

Working Paper #111»