WASHINGTON — English remains the language of choice among the children and grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants, despite continuing waves of migration from Latin America and concerns from some analysts that English might lose ground to Spanish in some parts of the United States, a new analysis of census data shows.
The study, conducted by researchers at the State University of New York at Albany, is the latest foray in a fierce debate about whether the continuing stream of immigration from Latin America will challenge traditional assimilation patterns charted by the descendants of European migrants.
Scholars say the descendants of most European immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and 20th centuries became exclusively English-speakers within three generations. In recent years, some people have questioned whether the descendants of Hispanic immigrants will follow suit, given the surging numbers of Spanish-speaking arrivals and the emphasis on multiculturalism and increased globalization.
The study, which examined data from the 2000 census, found that most Hispanic-Americans were also moving steadily toward English monolingualism. The report found that 72 percent of Hispanic children who were third-generation or later spoke English exclusively.
The report suggested that the trend had generally continued among Mexican-Americans, the country’s largest immigrant group, even during the immigration boom of the 1990s. In 1990, 64 percent of third- and later-generation Mexican-American children spoke only English at home, the study showed. By 2000, that figure had risen to 71 percent.
Richard Alba, director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at SUNY-Albany, says the study suggests that many people have underestimated the pressures of assimilation, which continue to drive immigrants and their descendants toward English as they seek success in the American mainstream.
Even for Hispanics in Los Angeles, a magnet for immigration from Latin America, the pattern of language shifts across generations remained similar to those among Hispanics nationally, he said.
“A number of people, whether from the left or the right, are underplaying the contemporary signs of assimilation,” Alba said. “They are viewing American society as much more fractured along ethnic and cultural lines than really appears to be the case. There are fault lines, but they are not as deep as people think.”
Alba uncovered some notable exceptions to the trend, finding that larger percentages of Hispanics maintained bilingualism in the third generation than did their earlier European counterparts. Such bilingualism mainly occurs in communities along the Mexican border, where Spanish has been widely spoken for generations, and among Dominican immigrants who maintain close ties to their home country, the study found.
Samuel P. Huntington, a professor of political science at Harvard, who touched off a furor this year by warning that continuing high levels of Hispanic immigration might “eventually change America into a country of two languages, two cultures and two peoples,” said he agreed with Alba’s findings.
But he said Alba’s study reflected the experiences of the descendants of Hispanic immigrants who arrived in the 1960s, when the large waves of Latin American migration to the United States were just beginning. He said the study did little to predict the experiences of the grandchildren of more recent Hispanic arrivals.
In 2003, about 33 million foreign-born people lived in the United States, accounting for nearly 12 percent of the population, census statistics show. Fifty-three percent of those immigrants were born in Latin America and half had arrived since 1990.
“We had this huge increase of immigration in the 1980s and 1990s: what will the grandchildren of these immigrants be like?” Huntington said. “How will they balance their conflicting identities as Hispanics, Mexicans and Americans? It’s going to be a very different situation. You can’t simply assume that this third generation that will emerge in a couple of decades is like the third generation that exists now.”
“If current trends continue,” Huntington said, “we will move in the direction of becoming a bilingual society. Is that going to be a disaster? Not necessarily. But it will make us a different country than we have been in the past.”
Alba said available statistics did not suggest a substantive change in historical patterns. His view was echoed by Ruben G. Rumbaut, co-director of the Center for Research on Immigration, Population and Public Policy at the University of California, Irvine.
Rumbaut, who was a co-director of the largest multiyear survey of the children of immigrants, said his findings showed that continued bilingualism among Hispanics did not occur at the expense of English.
“It’s additive, not subtractive,” Rumbaut said. “English is still overwhelmingly preferred, even by Mexican-born young people who came as young children and are living on the border.”