This study released earlier this month, shows rapid loss of Spanish language among Mexican immigrant families. It shows that claims that Latin American immigrants to theUnited States are jeopardizing the country’s English-speaking identity are wrong. It was published in Population and Development Review and is based largely on data from Southern California.
The authors are Rubén G. Rumbaut and Frank Bean, both sociologists at the University of California, Irvine, and Douglas Massey, a sociologist at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. The study is based on newly available data from two surveys investigating immigrant adaptation: the Immigration and Intergenerational Mobility in Metropolitan Los Angeles survey, a 2004telephone survey mainly targeting the Mexican-origin population, and the Children of Immigrants LongitudinalStudy, which has followed the progress of a large panel of youths of several dozen national origins in San Diego and south Florida.
The surveys asked respondents to rate their level of fluency in their native language and to identify the predominant language used at home. Those that responded “not verywell” and “English” respectively were categorized as “linguistically dead” in terms of their native tongue. The authors used these responses to derive “survival curves” of linguistic retention among immigrants–recording the fall-off in the degree to which immigrants and their descendants are able to speak their mother tongue and actually do so. These survival curves yield language “life expectancies,” or the average number of
generations a native language can be expected to survive in the U.S. after the arrival of an immigrant.
The authors found that although the generational life expectancy of Spanish is greater among Mexicans in southern California than other groups, its demise is all but assured by the third generation. Third-generation immigrants are American-born with American born parents but with 3 or 4 foreign-born grandparents.
In the second generation, fluency in Spanish was greater for Mexican immigrants than for other Latin American groups, and substantially greater than the proportions of Asian immigrants who could speak their mother tongue very well. In the third generation, only 17% of Mexican immigrants still speak fluent Spanish, and in the fourth generation, just 5%. The corresponding fourth-generation figure for white European immigrants is 1%.
What is endangered, say the authors, is not the dominance of English but the survival of the non-English languages immigrants bring with them to the United States.
This should be read by all who deal with controversies over immigration and language, especially in California.
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