Immigrants & The English Language

This past Monday was A Day Without An Immigrant, a one-day strike by immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, to demonstrate the economic importance of immigrant labor in the United States and to protest a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would make illegal immigration a felony.

This past week also saw a stir over a Spanish-language version of the national anthem, with many believing it is unpatriotic to sing the song in any language other than English.

As this newsletter is about language, this week we look at a couple of myths and misconceptions about immigrants and the English language.

Myth: Immigrants Don’t Want To Learn English

"I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English."
– George W. Bush, 28 April 2006

A common complaint is that immigrants today, unlike those of past generations, make little effort to learn English–this is simply not true. Most who come to this country as children will learn to speak English fluently and those who come as adults will fail, but not through lack of will to do so.

79% of first-generation Mexican immigrants who come to the U.S. as children will learn to speak English well. The percentage of Chinese immigrant children who will do so is 88%. The difference in the numbers is that Mexicans are much more likely to live in Spanish-speaking communities and, therefore, have somewhat less opportunity to encounter English. But even so, the vast majority of Mexican children who come to the U.S. will learn to speak English. (Source)

The number of adult immigrants who learn to speak English well is much lower, but then language acquisition in general sharply declines with age. Immigrants who come to the U.S. before the age of eight will perform as well as native-born Americans on English language tests. Those who immigrate between the ages of eight and fifteen will score progressively worse the older they were at the time they came to the United States. And those that immigrate when even older will score the worst of all, but the results among adult immigrants do not correlate with age. In other words, sometime in the teens humans start losing the ability to learn new languages. It’s not impossible to learn new languages as adults, but most people find it very hard to do so. (Source: Newport, E. Maturational constraints on language learning. Cognitive Science, 14, 1990)

Adult immigrants don’t fail to learn English because they don’t want to. They fail because they adults in general find it very hard to learn new languages.

Myth: The large numbers of Hispanic immigrants will create a permanent split in this country between Spanish and English speakers.

The fear is that Spanish-speaking families will create and maintain a permanent division in this country by language–this is not true.

By the second generation (those born in the U.S.), nearly all speak English. Most children of immigrants will speak the immigrant language at home, but will also be fluent in English. This is the bilingual generation–in all ethnic groups, English fluency is nearly universal in the second generation.

By the third generation, over 70% will speak English and no other language. In other words, by the time you get to the grandchildren of immigrants, most will no longer speak the immigrant language at all.

This holds for almost all immigrant groups being studied, including Hispanics in general and Mexicans, the largest immigrant group, in particular. The grandchildren of non-Mexican Hispanics have a greater tendency to learn Spanish as well as English, but more than 60% will know only English. The only third generation ethnic group that has less than 60% of English-only speakers are Dominicans, who are 44% bilingual in the third generation.

And these numbers are not changing significantly with the rise in the numbers of Hispanic immigrants in the 1990s. In the 1990 census, 64% of third-generation Mexican-Americans spoke only English. By 2000, this had risen to 71%. (Source)

So we will not see a permanent division in this country by language. The immigrant generation will speak a language other than English. Their children will be bilingual. And their grandchildren will speak English only. This is the way it has always been. It’s the way it is now. And we have every reason to suspect that it will be the way of the future as well. The primacy of the English language in the United States is secure.

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