It’s an “Only in America” anecdote with a greater lesson: The May 9 Sunday New York Times Magazine carries a profile of San Antonio mayor Julián Castro, an up-and-coming Latino politician who does not speak Spanish:
Early in his administration, Castro assigned his chief of staff, Robbie Greenblum – a Jewish lawyer from the border town of Laredo whose own Spanish is impeccable – to discreetly find him a tutor. Rosie Castro’s son is now being taught Spanish by a woman named Marta Bronstein. Greenblum met her in shul.
Author Zev Chafetz points out, “A lack of Spanish fluency isn’t unusual in San Antonio, especially among Castro’s generation.”
Indeed, among all the controversy about immigration over the southern border, the fact is that the Hispanic population is adopting English more rapidly than the European immigrant population did a century ago.
Sociological research on the descendants of today’s immigrants show that they – like Castro – lose the old-country language quickly, be it Spanish, Chinese, or whatever. Even their parents, the immigrants, learn English quickly. Despite popular images to the contrary, the immigrants of today are learning English faster than the European immigrants of a century ago did.
In a bit of research that Mike Hout, Aliya Saperstein, and I did with census data through 2000, we compared how long it took immigrants of different historical eras to speak English. The graph below shows the results.
The x-axis is the number of years that foreign-born adults had lived in the United States. The y-axis is the percentage of that group that spoke English. The lowest line (with open circles) shows how many foreign-born Americans in the 1900, 1910, and 1920 censuses reported being able to speak English. Of those who had been in the country fewer than 6 years, about 45% could speak English. Only among those who had been in the United States at least 11 years did the English-speaking percentage exceed three-fourths.
The top line represents foreign-born Americans in the 1980, 1990, and 2000 censuses. The story is dramatically different. Even in the most recently-arrived group, over three-fourths spoke English.
Perhaps some of those new immigrants came from English-speaking nations, like Jamaica. Also, the public concern is with Hispanic immigrants. For these reasons, we displayed the middle line, representing the 1980-2000 foreign-born who came from the Spanish-speaking nations of the Western Hemisphere. The conclusion is the same: They were likelier, earlier since their arrival, to speak English than the immigrants of a century ago were.
Upon reflection, this should not be so surprising. When we think back to that earlier wave of immigration, we picture neighborhoods like Little Italy, Greektown, the Lower East Side, and Little Warsaw – neighborhoods where as late as 1940, immigrants could lead their lives speaking only the language of the old country.
Another indicator of assimilation, marrying outside your group, shows the offspring of Mexican immigrants melding in at roughly the same pace as the offspring of those earlier newcomers.
Today, as in previous eras, the United States is a powerfully absorbing society. In short order, immigrants – and, especially, their children and grandchildren – adopt American habits, like speaking English, and American ways of seeing the world. Sometimes, we may feel that is to the good. For example, young people whose parents had arranged marriages assume that they, of course, will be free to find their own spouses. Sometimes, American ways may not be considered an improvement. For example, children of immigrants often adopt American eating habits that impair their health.
For better or worse, the story of a third-generation immigrant, like Julián Castro, needing to be tutored in his or her “homeland” language is not that unusual. It illustrates that immensely absorbent power of America culture.