Massey study shows rapid loss of Spanish language among Mexican immigrants in the United States

A new study (available in PDF format) co-written by Douglas Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, refutes claims that Latin American immigrants to the United States are jeopardizing the country's English-speaking identity.

The study, published this month in the Population and Development Review, is co-written with Rubén Rumbaut and Frank Bean, both sociologists at the University of California-Irvine.

Based on an analysis of language loss over the generations, the study concludes that English has never been seriously threatened as the dominant language in America, nor is it under threat today -- not even in Southern California, home to the largest concentration of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

The supposed threat to American culture and identity from large-scale Hispanic immigration was argued most recently by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in his 2004 book "Who Are We?" He asserted that because Latin American immigrants speak a common language, Spanish, they are less interested in linguistic assimilation than earlier white European immigrants. According to Huntington, Spanish may still be retained in the second and even third generation of immigrant families.

Massey's study is based on newly available data from two surveys investigating immigrant adaptation: the Immigration and Intergenerational Mobility in Metropolitan Los Angeles survey, a 2004 telephone survey mainly targeting the Mexican-origin population but also covering other Latin American and Asian communities; and the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study, which has followed the progress of a large panel of youths of several dozen national origins in San Diego and south Florida. Both surveys were funded by the Russell Sage Foundation.

The surveys asked respondents to rate their level of fluency in their native language and to identify the predominant language used at home. Those who responded "not very well" and "English" respectively were categorized as "linguistically dead" in terms of their native tongue. The authors used these responses to derive "survival curves" of linguistic retention among immigrants -- recording the fall-off in the degree to which immigrants and their descendants are able to speak their mother tongue and actually do so. These survival curves yield language "life expectancies," or the average number of generations a native language can be expected to survive in the U.S. after the arrival of an immigrant.

The authors found that although the generational life expectancy of Spanish is greater among Mexicans in Southern California than other groups, its demise is all but assured by the third generation. Third-generation immigrants are American-born with American-born parents but with three or four foreign-born grandparents.

In the second generation, fluency in Spanish was greater for Mexican immigrants than for other Latin American groups, and substantially greater than the proportions of Asian immigrants who could speak their mother tongue very well. In the third generation, only 17 percent of Mexican immigrants still speak fluent Spanish, and in the fourth generation, just 5 percent. The corresponding fourth-generation figure for white European immigrants is 1 percent.

What is endangered, said the authors, is not the dominance of English but the survival of the non-English languages immigrants bring with them to the United States.

"To the extent that language fluency is an asset and that knowledge of a foreign tongue represents a valuable resource in a global economy, immigrants' efforts to maintain this part of their cultural heritage and pass it on to their children should not be discouraged," the authors said.