OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

OSU study of Oregon Latino residents shows wide language gap

07/27/2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study of Oregon’s Latino residents shows that while first- and second-generation immigrants from Mexico or other Spanish-speaking countries maintain a Spanish-speaking dominance, English is dominant by the third generation.

By the fourth generation, the study shows, any traces of Spanish language are almost completely minimized.

The findings by Susana Rivera-Mills, an Oregon State University linguistics expert, contradict some of the arguments for an English-only educational structure. A ballot measure proposing such a structure was rejected by Oregon voters in 2008. The study was just published in the Southwest Journal of Linguistics.

Instead, Rivera-Mills suggests the real crisis is that fourth-generation immigrants find themselves unable to communicate in the native language of their grandparents, thus losing a cultural connection to their identity. In fact, in her own classes at OSU, she finds students of Spanish-speaking heritage enrolling to relearn Spanish so they can communicate with their parents, grandparents and other relatives.

Rivera-Mills is an associate professor of Spanish linguistics and diversity advancement at OSU and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. She arrived at OSU in 2007 from Northern Arizona University, where she conducted similar sociolinguistics research on immigrants in Arizona.

“It is important to note that despite the shift to English, this pattern among Spanish speakers already differs from the traditional three-generational pattern than has been found in primarily European immigrants,” she said.

Unlike European immigrants who become English monolingual by the third generation, research has shown that Spanish speakers retain a strong sense of identity to their native culture well into the fourth generation, despite the struggle to maintain the native language.

According to the 2006 Census update, approximately 11 percent of the Oregon population is Latino. The Pew Hispanic Center found that in 2007, 46 percent of Oregon's Latino population was foreign-born. Of the total Oregon population defined as “Latino,” 83 percent are of Mexican origin. This growth is fairly sudden compared to states such as Texas and California, which have longer immigration and native Spanish-speaking resident histories.

From 1990 to 2000 Oregon experienced a 144 percent increase in the Latino population with an additional 31 percent increase just five years after that. This sudden growth holds many economic, educational, political and social implications for the state, Rivera-Mills pointed out.

The study surveyed 50 Oregon Latinos, in the northern and central regions of the state. Rivera-Mills said while her research provides only a snapshot of Oregon, in-depth research done in states with a longer history of Latino immigration has yielded similar results, showing the use of Spanish almost disappearing within three or four generations.

The people interviewed all resided in Oregon for a minimum of five years with many having been residents of Oregon all of their lives. Their origins/heritages are diverse, coming from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Cuba, Nicaragua, Argentina and other Latin American countries, with the predominant number being of Mexican origin.

Because Oregon’s Latino population is primarily made up of first- and second-generation immigrants, Rivera-Mills said the number of Spanish-only speakers is proportionally higher than in states such as California and Texas. Census data shows that about 78 percent of the total Latino population reported speaking Spanish at home and that most report being bilingual speakers. As could be expected, this rating decreased significantly among third- and fourth-generation participants, some of whom reported being able to understand Spanish but not being able to speak it, read it or write it.

Another interesting finding from the study looked at attitudes toward language and grammar. Earlier immigrants strongly believed that Spanish speakers should speak “correct” Spanish and know the grammar rules of the language, while third generation residents often use a mix of English and Spanish, also known as “Spanglish.”

Rivera-Mills said the long history in the Southwest of Spanish speakers shows that these conflicting perspectives between recent and more established immigrants do not fade away quickly.

“Unfortunately, once settled, many immigrants forget their own struggles in adapting to a new language and culture, and are not as supportive of new immigrants in their communities,” she said. “However, by the third generation, we find that linguistic and cultural traits that originally distinguished us fade away and we become part of the complex and diverse U.S. culture.”

In addition to this research study, Rivera-Mills also has two new books recently published. One, called “Spanish of the U.S. Southwest: A Language in Transition” is co-edited with Daniel Villa of New Mexico State University. The other, titled “Building Communities and Making Connections,” was edited by Rivera-Mills along with Juan Trujillo, assistant professor of Spanish at OSU.