Asian Immigration and Linguistic Segregation

You don’t have to spend very much time studying immigration before you hear a few stereotypes about which groups are better at what.  In general, we here complaints about Hispanic immigrants and their supposed unwillingness to learn English.  Certainly, much of the English-Only movement seems to be fueled by a fear of Spanish displacing English in American society.  

On the other hand, stereotypes of Asian American immigrants are generally far more positive.  Certainly, there isn’t a fear that they aren’t learning English.  

In fact, research shows that immigrants today are learning English at much the same rate as previous generations.  (Check the Pew Research Center for a wealth of research on this subject.)   However,  just like immigrants 100 years ago, this acquisition is more likely to happen in generations 1.5 and 2 than in the first generation.  

As Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp demonstrate in this link (below), currently 70% of Asian Americans are foreign born (generation 1), and many of them live isolated ethnic enclaves where it is more difficult to get the needed practice with native speakers that is usually necessary to master a new language.

Their interest in this data is economic.  Wade and Sharp make a convincing argument that this linguistic isolation can make finding a new job more difficult if the industry you’re employed within suddenly crashes.  However, what’s interesting to me is what this reveals about the average American’s language attitudes.  

Certainly, there are far more Spanish speakers than there are of any one Asian language, but not all Latino immigrants are Spanish speakers and not all Hispanics are immigrants.  As  Mexican Americans whose families have been in Texas for generations sometimes say, “The border crossed us.”  Many Hispanics–like most other Americans–are actually monolingual English speakers.   So, what does this fear of Spanish reveal when we compare it to the relative lack of concern about Asian languages (at least in most parts of the country)?  

Ethnic Enclaves, Linguistic Segregation, and Asian Unemployment » Sociological Images.


About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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