Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Bilingualism Persists, But English Still Dominates

February 1, 2005

By Richard Alba
February 1, 2005

Because of renewed immigration, fears about English no longer being the linguistic "glue" holding America together are common. Some commentators envision speakers of other languages seizing economic and political power in large regions of the United States, creating disadvantages for English-speaking Americans.

In a very different vein, multiculturalists hope new immigrants' native languages will persist. They believe bilingualism and language pluralism could usher in a new era that breaks the hegemony of Anglo-American culture.

The underlying claim of both viewpoints is that the past pattern – children and grandchildren of immigrants who rapidly accept English – may be breaking down. Although some changes have occurred, testing this claim using Census data reveals that such beliefs are greatly exaggerated.

English is almost universally accepted by the children and grandchildren of the immigrants who have come to the US in great numbers since the 1960s, which means these children have high levels of linguistic assimilation. Moreover, by the third generation (grandchildren of immigrants), only a minority in any group maintains bilingualism.

Among Asian groups, these minorities are so small that the levels of linguistic assimilation are scarcely different from those of the past. Among Spanish-speaking groups, the bilingual minorities are larger than was the case among most European immigrant groups.

Nevertheless, speaking only English is the predominant pattern by the third generation, except for Dominicans, who are known for frequent back-and-forth travel between their homeland and the US.

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