November 29, 2007

English Usage Among Hispanics in the United States

III. Generations

There are striking generational differences among Latinos, especially between those born outside the U.S. and their U.S.-born children, in the ability to speak or read English. Spanish is the pervasive language of the first generation of adult Hispanics, those born outside the U.S. Their U.S.-born children, the second generation, are comfortable with both English and Spanish but much more likely to speak English at home and at work. By the third and later generations, children of U.S.-born parents, English use is universal and although many know how to speak Spanish, they do not often do so.

Among the first generation of Latino adults, most say they speak little or no English, and only 23% report that they speak the language very well. An additional 12% say they speak English pretty well. By the second generation, 88% report speaking English very well and 3% speak pretty well, and by later generations the proportions are 94% and 3% respectively. (Figure 3)

Reading skill follows the same pattern, at a slightly lower level of ability: 21% of the first generation say they read English very well, and 14% read pretty well. By the second generation, 78% report reading English very well and 11% read pretty well. By the third and higher generations, the shares increase to 81% and 11% respectively. (Figure 4)

Use of English at home is rare among Latino immigrants. Only 7% of foreign-born Latinos report speaking only English or more English than Spanish at home. But about half of the second generation (48%) speak mainly or only English with their families, and the rest speak at least some Spanish. By the third and higher generations, three-quarters of adults speak mainly or only English at home.

All generations are more likely to use English at work than at home. Among the first generation, 29% speak only English or mainly English on the job. By the second generation, two-thirds speak mainly or only English in the workplace. Most later generations of Hispanics (58%) speak only English at work and an additional 22% say they speak mainly English at work.

As English usage gains over generations, Spanish use dwindles but does not disappear. Among foreign-born Hispanics, 95% say they speak Spanish very well. Slightly more than half of the second generation (56%) say they speak Spanish very well, as do 29% of the later generations. But Spanish retains a foothold in the third generation and beyond, with 52% reporting they speak it at least pretty well.

Both native- and foreign-born adult Hispanics report lower reading skills than speaking skills in Spanish. Six-in-ten first-generation Latinos say they can read a newspaper or book in Spanish very well. That share drops to 39% in the second generation and 16% in later generations. Most members of the third and higher generations report very little or no reading ability in Spanish.

Spanish is the language that most foreign-born Hispanic adults (52%) speak exclusively at home. That proportion drops to 11% among second-generation adults and 6% among those in the third and higher generations.