Immigrants aspire to speak English, study finds

December 02, 2007|By Anna Gorman | Anna Gorman,Los Angeles Times

A study released last week by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center, reports that in families for whom Spanish is the dominant language among immigrant parents, English fluency increases across generations. By the third generation, Spanish has essentially faded into the background.

Latinos recognize that learning English is key to economic success, according to the study, which was based on survey data collected between 2002 and 2007.

"The ability to speak English is a crucial skill for getting a good job and integrating into the wider society," said D'Vera Cohn, a senior writer at the research center, a nonpartisan research organization that does not advocate immigration policy. "Language is a vehicle for assimilation."

Though the findings echo the history of immigration waves in the U.S., experts said, they counter the widespread perception that large numbers of Latino immigrants are a threat to the English language.

"People get very upset about `Press 2 for Spanish,' " said Rub?n G. Rumbaut, a UC Irvine sociology professor who has done his own research on the language issue.

But "there is no way English is being threatened by immigrants. ... The switch to English is taking place perhaps more rapidly than it has ever in American history."

English fluency has long been at the center of the national immigration debate. At the city and state levels, language battles are being fought over school tests, storefront signs and local ballots. In Congress, legislators recently sparred over sanctions against employers who require workers to speak only English.

Groups that support controls on immigration and English-only initiatives say the federal government and U.S. companies are making it easy for Latino immigrants to continue to speak Spanish.

"The Pew study points to some of the long-term problems," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors conservative immigration policies. "One in eight American-born children of immigrants doesn't speak English well. ... And even the grandchildren of immigrants who arrived decades ago, 6 percent of them still don't speak English well. That's pretty bad news."

According to the Pew report, which analyzed surveys with more than 14,000 Latino immigrants, only 23 percent of adult first-generation Latinos say they can carry on a conversation very well in English, compared to 88 percent in the second generation and 94 percent in the third.

The Pew analysis found that 89 percent of Latinos recognize that they need English to succeed in the United States, while 46 percent of respondents this year said language is the leading cause of discrimination against them.

Anna Gorman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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