November 29, 2007

English Usage Among Hispanics in the United States

I. Overview

Revised 12-06-07 to add the following note to Figure 13: “Puerto Ricans are excluded from the estimates in this figure.”

Nearly all Hispanic adults born in the United States of immigrant parents report they are fluent in English. By contrast, only a small minority of their parents describe themselves as skilled English speakers. This finding of a dramatic increase in English-language ability from one generation of Hispanics to the next emerges from a new analysis of six Pew Hispanic Center surveys conducted this decade among a total of more than 14,000 Latino adults. The surveys show that fewer than one-in-four (23%) Latino immigrants reports being able to speak English very well. However, fully 88% of their U.S.-born adult children report that they speak English very well. Among later generations of Hispanic adults, the figure rises to 94%. Reading ability in English shows a similar trend.

As fluency in English increases across generations, so, too, does the regular use of English by Hispanics, both at home and at work. For most immigrants, English is not the primary language they use in either setting. But for their grown children, it is.

The surveys also find that Latino immigrants are more likely to speak English very well, and to use it often, if they are highly educated, arrived in the United States as children or have spent many years here. College education, in particular, plays an important role in the ability to speak and read English. Among the major Hispanic origin groups, Puerto Ricans and South Americans are the most likely to say they are proficient in English; Mexicans are the least likely to say so.

The transition to English dominance occurs at a slower pace at home than it does at work. Just 7% of foreign-born Hispanics speak mainly or only English at home; about half of their adult children do. By contrast, four times as many foreign-born Latinos speak mainly or only English at work (29%). Fewer than half (43%) of foreign-born Latinos speak mainly or only Spanish on the job, versus the three-quarters who do so at home.

Defining generations

First: Those born outside the United States; includes those born in Puerto Rico.

Second: Born in the United States, with at least one first-generation parent.

Third and higher: Born in the United States, with both parents born in the United States.

The main data sources for this report are six surveys conducted for the Pew Hispanic Center from April 2002 to October 2006. They included interviews with more than 14,000 native-born and foreign-born Latino adults, ages 18 and older, irrespective of legal status. Latinos born in Puerto Rico, many of whom arrive on the U.S. mainland as Spanish speakers, are included as foreign born.

In analyzing the data on English use and prevalence from these surveys, this report relies on four measures based on respondents’ ratings of their English-speaking skills, their English-reading skills, their level of English use at home, and their level of English use at work.

Two of these surveys, along with a more recent nationwide survey of Latinos taken by the Pew Hispanic Center in October and November of this year, also provide a clear measure of how Hispanics believe that insufficient English language skill is an obstacle to their acceptance in the U.S. In surveys taken in 2007, 2006 and 2002, respondents were asked about potential sources of discrimination against Hispanics. In all three surveys, language skills was chosen more often than the other options as a cause of discrimination.

Among this report’s findings:

About This Report

The estimates in this report are derived from six surveys conducted for the Pew Hispanic Center from April 2002 to October 2006. They included interviews with more than 14,000 native-born and foreign-born Latino adults. The report relies on respondents’ ratings of their English-speaking skills, their English-reading skills, their level of English use at home, and their level of English use at work.

A Note on Terminology

Unless otherwise noted, this report uses the following definitions of the first, second and third and higher generations:

First: Those born outside the United States; includes those born in Puerto Rico.

Second: Born in the United States, with at least one first-generation parent.

Third and higher: Born in the United States, with both parents born in the United States.

The terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” are used interchangeably in this report, as are the terms “foreign born” and “immigrant.”

Cite this publication: Shirin Hakimzadeh and D’Vera Cohn. “English Usage Among Hispanics in the United States.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (November 29, 2007) http://www.pewhispanic.org/2007/11/29/english-usage-among-hispanics-in-the-united-states/, accessed on July 23, 2014.