News Column

Language of The Middle Class

December 2003, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Higher levels of income and educational achievement among U.S. hispanics correlate with English-language use, according to an analysis of Census 2000 data by HispanTelligence, the research arm of Hispanic Business Inc. Put another way, Hispanics who speak English exclusively or are fully bilingual are more likely to enjoy financial success and to graduate from college.

This latter group is larger than many people are apt to believe. More than 75 percent of all U.S. Hispanics either speak English exclusively or are bilingual and speak English well or very well, according to the latest Census figures (see table, "Language Capabilities").

"Those individuals who do not achieve English fluency suffer in the employment market, where these language skills are critical for high-wage jobs," says Adela de la Torre, director of Chicano Studies at the University of California at Davis. At the same time, "psychological research on individual identity, particularly for Latinos, indicates that those Latinos who can maintain their bilingual/bicultural identities are emotionally healthier."

Not surprisingly, a sizeable number of these Hispanics prefer to receive information via English-language media, according to a 2003 study by the Pew Hispanic Center. The study reports that native-born Hispanics expressed an overwhelming preference (71 percent) for English-language media, with another 20 percent choosing both English and Spanish equally.

Language preference among U.S. Hispanics is largely a function of where they were born. Only 10 percent of U.S. native-born Spanish-speakers do not speak English well or at all, according to Census 2000. Among foreign-born Spanish-speakers, however, the proportion with poor to non-existent English-language skills swells to 48 percent.

  Foreign-born Hispanics Native-born Hispanics
English-dominant 4% 61%
Bilingual 24% 35%
Spanish-dominant 72% 4%
Source: The Pew Hispanic Center, National Survey of Latinos, 2002

  1st generation 2nd generation 3rd generation
English-dominant 4% 46% 78%
Bilingual 24% 47% 22%
Spanish-dominant 72% 7% --
Source: The Pew Hispanic Center, National Survey of Latinos, 2002

Language preference All Hispanics Native-born Hispanics Foreign-born Hispanics
Predominantly Spanish 38% 9% 55%
Spanish and English equally 26% 20% 30%
Predominantly English 36% 71% 15%
Source: The Pew Hispanic Center, National Survey of Latinos, 2002

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 72 percent of foreign-born Hispanics are Spanish-dominant and another 24 percent are bilingual. Conversely, 61 percent of native-born Hispanics are English-dominant and another 35 percent are bilingual (see table, "Primary Language, by Nativity," above).

The language-dominance figures for native-born Hispanics reflect the rapidity with which language preferences change from one generation to the next. Among first-generation Hispanics (foreign-born U.S. residents), 72 percent are Spanish-dominant and only 4 percent are English-dominant. In the next generation (native-born offspring of immigrant parents), however, only 7 percent are Spanish-dominant, with the remainder nearly equally split between English-dominant and bilingual. In the next generation, the Spanish-dominant category disappears entirely. Fully 78 percent of third-generation Hispanics are English-dominant, with the remaining 22 percent classified as bilingual (see table, "Primary Language, by Generation in the U.S.," above).

These trends promise to become more pronounced in the future. As more Hispanic immigrants become acculturated, their use of English is certain to grow along with demand for English-language media that cater to their needs.

This is already clearly evident among younger Hispanics. According to the research firm Cultural Access Group, Hispanics ages 14 to 24 prefer to use English over Spanish by a margin of 57 percent to 28 percent. This same demographic group overwhelmingly prefers English-language Internet sites, and by a margin of nearly two to one, they prefer English-language television and radio programming over Spanish-language fare.

Hispanics recognize the importance of English-language proficiency. For instance, in a survey by the Latino Coalition, a public policy organization, Hispanics who were asked to identify the greatest obstacle to success in the United States most often highlighted language.

"The portrait of the foreign-born and Spanish-dominant Hispanic who watches only Univision or Telemundo has not gone unchallenged," author Arlene Davila writes in the book Latinos Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People. "Specifically, the dominance of Spanish as the defining element of the market has been challenged by radio and print, cheaper and more adaptable media."


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