U.S.-Born Children of Hispanics Have Dramatically Better English Skills, Study Finds

In just one generation, English-language skills among Latino immigrants take an impressive jump.

Hispanic adults consider insufficient English an obstacle to their acceptance in the United States, but a new report shows their children are unlikely to have the same problem.

In an analysis of English-language ability among 14,000 foreign- and native-born Latinos, researchers from the Pew Hispanic Center found a dramatic increase in English ability and use from one generation to the next. 

While less than a quarter (23 percent) of Latino immigrants says they speak English very well, 88 percent of their U.S.-born adult children report they are fluent. In subsequent generations, the figure climbs to 94 percent.

The rapid acquisition of English is certainly evident in Graciela Contreras’ family of Lakewood. Her five U.S.-born children speak almost exclusively English to each other but only Spanish to their mother. Contreras, who came to the United States from Jalisco nearly 20 years ago, sometimes worries the transition from Spanish to English in her family has happened too fast and too completely. Her older children still speak Spanish well, she says, but the younger ones less so. 

“For me it’s embarrassing to think of going to Mexico and my kids can’t understand my mother and my sisters,” Contreras said. “It’s sad because they’re Mexican — the only thing they have American is nationality.”

Contreras’ son Julio also thinks it’s important to speak both languages well. His English is indistinguishable from that of any other thoughtful and slightly mischievous 13-year-old. He corresponds regularly in Spanish with an uncle in Mexico who corrects his mistakes and teaches him new vocabulary. Although he prefers math to languages and literature, Julio plans to take advanced Spanish language and reading classes next year as a freshman.

“People keep telling me I will get into a better job and have more opportunities if I speak both languages,” said Julio, who accompanies his mother twice a week to an evening English class in north Denver.

Contreras’ classmate, Abel Lucero, once studied English as a student in Durango, Mexico, but he never thought he’d use the language. He has a degree in civil engineering back home, but here he supervises a team of landscapers. Lucero, 50, is a quiet man – tall and lean with a black moustache and strong hands speckled white from the day’s work. His three children were all born in Mexico, and he says they speak mostly Spanish to each other. The youngest, who was 6 when she came to the United States, is proficient in both languages, he says. The oldest, who was 16 when he arrived, has more trouble.

“The main problem is to learn English you have to put in lots of time,” and work is the priority, Lucero said.

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Kate Bernuth

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