Study: Latinos Learn English Faster Than Past Immigrants

PHOTO: An immigrant family on Ellis Island looking across New York Harbor at the Statue of Liberty.

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Many who oppose high levels of Latino immigration argue that these new immigrants don't learn English as quickly as prior waves of European immigrants did.

A series of new studies, however, reveals a different picture. Latinos are doing pretty well at learning English, especially when compared to many German immigrants of the 19th century, who were considerably slower to acquire the language.

The research, conducted by Joseph Salmons of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Miranda E. Wilkerson of Columbia College, indicates that a significant portion of second and third-generation descendants of immigrants in Wisconsin did not learn English, and spoke only German. The difference doesn't quite have to do with geographical isolation or lack of educational resources. It seems in such communities there was not as much of a cultural emphasis or need placed on learning English.

Today, 92 percent of the Latino second generation (children of immigrants) speak English "very well," and by the third generation nearly one hundred percent of Latinos are either English dominant or fully bilingual, according to a Pew study from last year.

In the late nineteenth century, in contrast, more than a third of all residents of Wisconsin were native German speakers, and in some counties, like Hustisford, Wisconsin, 35 percent of American-born (second generation) immigrants spoke only German.

Salmons says there are no Latino communities in the U.S. that mimic these patterns.

"I challenge anybody to show me a third generation person in this country who speaks Spanish and no English, whereas we can find in the Census records, we can find those people in German speaking communities," said Joseph Salmons, who studies language acquisition in immigrant communities. "Find me a place where you have a third of the community speaking only Spanish, and over half of them are born in the U.S. I don't believe it, and I don't know of any evidence to suggest as much."

Their findings are based on an analysis of Census data from 1910 as well as more qualitative research of community records.

Much like today, many in the 19th and early 20th centuries feared that immigrants would threaten the prosperity of the nation as a whole. Even founding father Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1753:

"Few of their children in the country learn English... The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages ... Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious."

But turns out, we were alright and today, more Americans say their ancestry traces back to Germany than to any other foreign nation.

Salmons believes looking at history is a good way to shape how we think about the present immigration debate.

"In a country like ours where immigration has been going on for hundreds of years, the rhetoric has remained almost the same for those hundreds of years," Salmons said.

"It's really useful for people to consider the history, even their own family's history, and their own community's history as they consider the current debate."

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Viewing America’s population through the lens of diversity, we will cover the social, cultural and political impact of various racial and ethnic groups in this country.

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