By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007
Almost all Hispanic adults born in the United States to immigrant parents speak fluent English, even though most of their parents do not, according to a report released yesterday.
The study by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center is among the broadest national analyses to date of Hispanic immigrants' language skills and comes amid widespread concern that the recent, massive influx of mostly Latin American immigrants is not assimilating fast enough.
In a recent Washington Post poll of Virginia residents, for instance, 70 percent of respondents said they believe recent immigrants are not doing enough to learn English and fit in with American culture and values.
Hispanic immigrants appear to be feeling the heat, according to the Pew study. Forty-six percent said lack of language skills was the biggest cause of discrimination against Latinos, as opposed to skin color, immigration status or income and education level.
To some extent, the study, which primarily analyzed data from six surveys since 2002 of more than 14,000 native and foreign-born Latino adults, confirmed the impression that many Hispanic immigrants are not learning English. Among first-generation Latino adults, only 23 percent say they can carry on a conversation in English very well; about 65 percent said they speak English just a little or not at all. Those results were consistent with more limited data from Census Bureau surveys.
Nonetheless, 67 percent of Latino immigrants report that they use at least some English at work; 28 percent said they speak only Spanish on the job. Most significantly, 88 percent of their U.S.-born adult children say they speak English very well, and the figure rises to 94 percent for later generations.
Use of English also increases across generations: Only 7 percent of foreign-born Latinos report speaking more English than Spanish at home, compared with about half of the second generation and three-quarters of the third.
As each generation gains fluency in English, it tends to lose fluency in Spanish. Still, 52 percent of third-generation Latinos report speaking Spanish at least fairly well.
The study's findings are in keeping with trends followed by the last great wave of immigrants around the turn of the last century, co-author D'Vera Cohn said.
"We can't say for sure whether today's immigrants are learning English more quickly than their counterparts of a century ago," said Cohn, a former Washington Post reporter ."But we do know that the pattern of generational change is similar."
So is the unease generated by the newcomers' lack of English skills, she added. "A century ago, there was also a lot of concern expressed about whether the great wave of immigrants would assimilate and become part of American society. . . . This concern about assimilation has been a theme of every great wave of immigration to this country."
But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors reduced immigration levels, said the study suggests that descendants of the current wave of immigrants will assimilate at a slower pace than those born of previous waves.
"The fact that 88 percent of American-born children speak English very well is not something to brag about," he said. "What it really means is that 1 out of 8 American-born children of Hispanic immigrants does not speak English very well. And that 1 out of 16 of their American-born grandchildren does not speak English very well. That's pretty alarming."