News Column

Pew Says Age, Education Help Hispanic Immigrants Learn English

November 29, 2007
Hispanic family reading

How quickly foreign-born Hispanics in the United States learn to speak English depends largely on their education levels and their ages of arrival, according to a study released Thursday by the Pew Hispanic Research Center.

Chances are if an immigrant comes to the U.S. with a college education, a majority already speak English or will in a short time. Among foreign-born Hispanics with college degrees, 62 percent said they speak English very well. That percentage drops to 34 percent among those with high school diplomas and 11 percent among those who did not finish high school.

Hispanic immigrants are also more likely to speak English well if they arrived in the U.S. as children or have spent many years in this country.

The research also showed that English-language assimilation patterns were similar to other immigrant groups in the U.S.

Hispanic immigrants speak mostly Spanish, while their adult children who were born in the U.S. have a firm grip of both English and Spanish. Meanwhile, third-generation Hispanics speak English as their Spanish begins to fade away.

"Certainly our numbers show that Spanish is not dominant by the third generation it's seldom used," said D'Vera Cohn, a co-author of the study and senior writer at Pew Hispanic Research Center.

Researchers also found that how well Hispanic immigrants speak English differs depending on where they were born.

Nearly three of every four Mexican immigrants surveyed said they speak English "a little or not at all," while 57 percent of immigrants from Cuba, 44 percent of South American immigrants and 35 percent of Puerto-Rican born immigrants reported speaking some or no English.

Lower education levels before entering the U.S., and the time spent in the United States, also play a significant role in poorer English skills among Hispanic immigrants.

Since Mexicans account for 63 percent of the foreign-born Hispanic population and make up the country's largest Hispanic immigrant group, much of how Hispanics are perceived in the U.S. is through the Mexican population.

"(This group) pretty much drives what we think is the overall picture of Hispanics," said Rakesh Kochhar, associate director for research at Pew Hispanic Center. "(Mexicans) are such a huge weight in terms of sheer numbers."

The report also found the following results:

•Of adult first-generation Hispanics, only 23 percent say they can carry a conversation in English very well. That share rises sharply to 88 percent among second-generation adults and to 94 percent among the third and higher generations.

•More than 50 percent of foreign-born Hispanics report that they speak only Spanish at home while the numbers decrease to 11 percent for their adult children and 6 percent for their grandchildren.

•Half of the adult children of Hispanic immigrants speak some Spanish at home. By the third and higher generations that has fallen to one in four.

•Hispanics cite language skills more frequently than immigration status, skin color or income and education levels as the biggest cause of discrimination.

The main data sources for the study are six surveys conducted over a period of more than four years, from April 2002 to October 2006. More than 14,000 native born and foreign-born Hispanic adults were surveyed.

Source: Hispanic (c) Copyright 2007. All rights reserved.

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