Authors: Marlen Rangel & Diana Suarez
Publication Date: June 8, 2014

Immigration and Language Assimilation

There is a continuous growth in today's immigrant population in the United States. Immigration opens the door for diffusion of different ideas, cultures and languages. According to the 2010 Census Bureau, immigrants make up 13% of US population (Batalova, 2012)[1] . In 2012, 46% of immigrants reported to be hispanic or Latino ( These immigration waves represent the permanent residency of millions of families all over the country. There is a ongoing debate about the future of immigrants in this country. Many favor a complete language assimilation of immigrants into the American culture. While, others support a multi-linguistic rich society. Assimilation of Latino immigrant is seen through language assimilation. Newly immigrants, children of the immigrants and third generation Latino immigrants experience such impact differently.The video illustrates how 2nd and 3rd generation U.S. born American are quickly integrating socially and linguistically.

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Research Question:

How does immigration and assimilation affect language use and bilingualism among Latinos in the United States?


Language Minority: the language of a minority group
Language Shift: the shift from immigrant language to host-country language, here there is a shift from Spanish in first-generation immigrants to English in the third-generation
English Immersion Education: Refers to a structured English language instruction. A gradual exposure to the English language.
Assimilation: The process in which a different ethnic group integrate into the dominant culture.

Language Shift

Through the analysis of the 1990 and 2000 Census, and the IPUMS (Integrated Public Use Microdata Samples, which is a database that stems from the Census and organizes information and statistics that facilitate analysis), it is evident that an English-only pattern of language assimilation occurs by the third-generation (Alba, Logan, Lutz & Stults, 2002; Linton & Jimenez, 2009)[2] [3] . Studies have targeted children and adolescents that fall within generational categories as youth’s language use is an indicator of that language’s future. This is how immigrants and generations thereafter are classified:
  • First-Generation: the immigrating generationSecond-Generation: children born in the United States who have at least one foreign-born parent
    • 1.5: those who immigrated to the United States before the age of 10
  • Third-Generation: children who were born in the United States and whose parents were also born in the United States
The first-generation, being composed of the group who immigrates, shows proficiency in their native language, the minority language, while acquiring the host language, English in the United States. The second-generation shows both fluent bilingualism while shifting towards English preference (Portes & Hao, 1998; ). However, by the third-generation, the shift to English-only is most evident.

How is Language Shift different for Latinos?

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Figure 1. results for Alba, Logan, Lutz & Stults (2002) analysis of language shift from 194-1970

Although there is a trend toward English-only by the third generation, studies have suggested that this trend is not as linear or occurring as quickly for the Latino population (Alba, Logan, Lutz & Stults, 2002; Pease-Alvarez 2002). Data derived from the U.S. Census points out these differences during 20th century immigration by analyzing the years of 1940s and 1970s (Alba, Logan, Lutz & Stults, 2002) . Figure 1. highlights the differences in language assimilation between European groups and the Mexican group. English-only is represented overwhelmingly by the third-generation in 1970 for the European groups. By 1970, 94% or more of European groups were being raised in English-only households. Even in the second-generation in 1940, between one third and three-fourths of the European groups were speaking only English. Comparably, the Mexican group, which is representing the Latino population, had larger percentages of children being brought up in household in which Spanish was spoken. In 1940, only 10% of children did not speak Spanish at home in 1970, three-quarters of third-generation children were brought up in homes where Spanish was spoken. It is clear that by the third-generation, there is differences in that the Mexican group was still engaging toward English-only, but the change was not as drastic.

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Figure 2. derived from; but represents the results found in Alba, Logan, Lutz & Stults(2002)

Contemporary data also derived from the U.S. Census and the IPUMS compares the language shifts between immigrant groups. However, most recent data compares the shift between Asian minorities and Hispanic minorities. Figure 2. indicates that all of these groups see an English-only effect by the third-generation. However, Spanish-speaking minorities have lower percentages of English-only speakers by the third-generation compared to Asian groups. About 90% of children from the Asian groups are English monolinguals by the third-generation (Alba, Logan, Lutz & Stults, 2002). And, although this trend is also seen in the Latino groups, the percentage of English monolingual is not as high. About two-thirds of Mexican third-generation children, three-quarters of Cuban third-generation children and the lowest, one-half of the Dominican third-generation children were English monolinguals.

Why is the language shift different for the Latino population? What contributes to the maintenance of bilingualism amongst this group and what contributes the loss of bilingualism amongst Latinos?

What contributes to the loss of bilingualism amongst Latinos?

Available research attributes the gradual language shift to early education programs and to the desire to integrate into the US culture. The desire the fully integrate has affected immigrants linguistic heritage. Bilingualism is no longer the goal for immigrants. Heritage languages are gradually being replaced by the language of migration.

Early Education Programs

Education is an essential part of immigrants language assimilation. There is a strong belief that early educational exposure is necessary in order to achieve English proficiency. English-only programs popularity have increased in the past few decades. Immigrant’s parents believe that an all-English instruction benefits their children and increases their academic success.There is less focus on the effects of children’s primary language. Filmore's and Pease-Alvarez's studies show how generations are beginning to loose their native languages. Fillmore’s studies reveal the negative effects that early education has on bilingualism. Programs like Head Start can be attributed to the loss of bilingual immigrants and increase in monolinguals immigrants (Filmore, 1991). Fillmore attributes the loss of native language to early education programs and to the desire to assimilate rapidly (336)[4] .
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Figure 3. Patterns of change reported in language use in the home (Filmore, 1991)
Wong Fillmore et al. conducted a national survey of immigrant families whose children were enrolled in English focused preschool. They used families whose children were in Spanish focused preschools. as a comparison sample. The results showed a negative decrease in primary language use at home in children enrolled in English only or bilingual preschools. Figure 3 shows the changes in language use at home in both sample groups. A high percentage of parents whose children were enrolled in English focused preschool reported less first language use and more English use from their young children (Filmore, 1991).
Length of U.S. residency differed among samples. The main sample was composed of a higher percentage of recent immigrants. Fillmore sees such educational approach as a threat to children’s native languages.

Social Integration

Social integration has been perceived as the only way for immigrants to fulfill the American dream. Latinos just like any other immigrant group migrate to the United States for work opportunities [5] . In order to have full access to such opportunities immigrants must learn the dominant language. Spencer et al. study illustrates how language is perceived as a tool for social mobility. Spencer et al. calls this the “linguistic capital” idea[6] . The study shows how immigrants learn English fast in order to achieve social mobility (Crawford) . Immigrants attend adult school, while children attend schools with English instruction. The language dominance is measured differently among the different generations.

What contributes to the maintenance of bilingualism amongst Latinos?

Enclave Effect

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Figure 4. shows the areas with the highest Latino population in the United States.

Through the analysis of the U.S. 1990/2000 Census, it has been found that areas with high clustering of Hispanic population is associated with bilingualism (Linton & Jimenez, 2009). Figure 4. above shows areas in the United States with high percentages of Hispanic residents.


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Figure 5. These interview results from Pease-Alvarez (2002) in which parents shared that maintaining the Spanish language is important to maintain identity.

Interviews with children and adults in various cities in California have revealed ways in which Latinos in Spanish- speaking communities are able to maintain bilingualism in Spanish and English within the second-generation and beyond (Pease-Alvarez 2002). By interviewing parents and children twice, within a three-year span, in a predominantly Latino community in California, it was found that children and parents held positive opinions about bilingualism and maintaining the Spanish language. Data revealed that being able to speak Spanish is an important component for maintaining Mexican identity. Figure 5. shows an example of the results in Pease-Alvarez (2002) that indicate that the interviewees valued their Mexican identity and that maintaining the Spanish language and bilingualism helps preserve that identity.

Supply and Demand

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Figure 6. from Linton & Jimenez (2009) is an example of an interview that presents the value of bilingualism in U.S. born latinos.

Furthermore, interviews with primarily U.S.. born Latinos in three California cities revealed that bilingualism is important due to the demand of the language in businesses and professions (Linton-Jimenez, 2009). The immigration population from Speaking-countries continues to increase, increasing the demand for U.S. born Latinos to also continue speaking Spanish. Figure 6. is an example of a response in an interview that represents this idea of replenishment. Demographics matter in that influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants does contribute to bilingualism in U.S. born and 1.5 generation Latinos.


Studies indicate that there there is a trend toward English-only by the third-generation amongst immigrants and their descendants. However, the trend is not as linear nor is it occurring as quickly for the Latino population. Latinos have higher chances of maintaining bilingualism as there continues to be an influx of immigration creating a demand and a lot of the Latino population is located in specific parts of the U.S., which create enclaves that mitigate the maintenance of the Spanish language. But, at the same time, our education system and social integration push toward English-only.

Much of the data that reveals the direction of language use comes from the U.S. Census. A limitation for the study that compared the 1940/1970 shift toward English-only between European groups and the Mexican group was that it only asked for information about children 10 and over for the 1940 sample. The U.S. Census keeps on changing in the questions asked. In the 1990 and 2000 Census, there is a limitation in that people are simply asked whether they speak a different language at home which does not reflect how well they speak this language. It is possible that their language use is very limited and that would skew results.

As for the interviews, Pease-Alvarez (2002) may have had an issue in the way that they asked their interview questions (refer to Figure 7). Results indicated that Latinos in their study valued the Spanish language and many planned to hopefully get better at that language. However, it can be argued that some of these questions geared these types of answers. It is very possible that the participants did indeed have a desire to improve their Spanish and become fluent bilinguals, but the method in which these interview questions could benefit in making them more broad. For example, by labeling use as “important” can direct participants to say that bilingualism and speaking Spanish is indeed important. Below is an image that shows the types of questions participants were asked.

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Figure 7. show a list of interview questions that were used in Pease-Alvarez (2002).

  1. ^

    Lee, Alicia, and Jeanne Batalova. "Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States." N.p., 21 Mar. 2012.
  2. ^

    Alba, R., Logan, J., Lutz, A., & Stults, B. (2002). Only english by the third generation? loss and preservation of the mother tongue among the grandchildren of contemporary immigrants. Demography, 39(3), 467-484. Retrieved from
  3. ^ Linton, A., & Jiménez, T. R. (2009). Contexts for bilingualism among US-born latinos. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 32(6), 967-995. doi:
  4. ^

    Fillmore, L. W. (1991). When learning A second language means losing the first. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6(3), 323. Retrieved from
  5. ^

    Crawford, J. (1991). Bilingual education: History, politics, theory, and practice. Trenton, NJ: Crane Publishing.
  6. ^ Spencer, J., Rojas, V., & Straubhaar, J. (2013). Generational shifts in language use among US latinos: Mobility, education and occupation. International Migration, 51(5), 172-191. Retrieved from