Immigrants tend to embrace, not avoid, English language

Keay Davidson
San Francisco Examiner

Tuesday, August 25, 1998.

Waves of immigrants don't threaten the dominance of English as America's main language because most youthful newcomers prefer speaking it rather than their native tongue, research shows.

Surveys of recent immigrant families show that as their children age, acquiring friends and activities outside the home, the offspring's preference for English soars.

Eighty-eight percent of immigrant children surveyed prefer to speak English, according to a study by Michigan State University's Children of Immigrant Longitudinal Study or CILS. Six years ago, the percentage was 73 percent.

"The United States has been called a (foreign) language graveyard ... What is being eliminated rapidly is these children's ability to maintain fluency in the parents' native language," Michigan State sociology Prof. Ruben G. Rumbaut said Monday at the American Sociological Association meeting in San Francisco.

Hence, "English is not being threatened in the United States any more than it is being threatened in the Milky Way galaxy."

English-speaking Americans shouldn't gloat over these results, Rumbaut cautions.

The loss of bilingual skills among immigrants "implies a significant loss of scarce and valuable bilingual resources not only for the individual but for the United States in an increasingly global economy," Rumbaut said.

"The force of linguistic assimilation was incontrovertible" in Rumbaut's surveys -- even among the group that clings to its native tongue the longest: Mexican-born youngsters who live near the U.S.-Mexico border in Spanish-named towns with large Spanish-speaking populations and many Spanish radio and TV stations.

In a 1996 survey, Rumbaut and his colleagues found that a majority of those Mexican children -- 61 percent -- expressed a preference for speaking English. That was far higher than in 1992, when the percentage was 32 percent.

Mexican immigrant youngsters appear to learn English well, too -- even better than Spanish.

"When CILS children were asked to evaluate their ability to speak, understand, read, and write in both English and their non-English mother tongue, over three-fourths of the total sample in both 1992 and 1995-96 reported speaking English 'very well,' " Rumbaut said.

By contrast, "only about a third ... reported an equivalent level of spoken fluency in the non-English language."

The trend, he said, repeats one seen throughout American history: While first generation immigrants may continue to speak their native language, their children eagerly switch to English.

And in all likelihood, their grandchildren will know virtually nothing of their ancestral tongue.

It is, Rumbaut said, an "age old pattern in American history ... The grandchildren may learn a few foreign words and phrases as a quaint vestige of their ancestry, but they will most likely grow up speaking English only."

Rumbaut criticized "misguided" efforts to restrict bilingual education in California, which, he suspects, has been driven by unwarranted public anxiety about the future of English.