This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Demographics of Bilingualism in the U.S.

Over the years there has been a big push in American schools, especially in colleges and universities, to get young people to learn a second language. Here in Southern California the obvious alternative to English is Spanish and I and my wife (and subsequently our children) learned Spanish in school, although in truth we only speak English at home. I thought about this when I read this week's article in The Economist asking whether Spanish can avoid America's language graveyard.
Linguists have often referred to America as a “language graveyard”. Despite being a country of immigrants, it has tended to snuff out foreign languages within two or three generations. Spanish, it has long been thought, might be different. Hispanics account for 18% of America’s population and are projected to make up 28% by 2060, according to the United States Census Bureau. Given the large size and rapid growth of the Hispanic population, some people used to fear that Spanish would not only endure but overtake English, especially in states like California and New Mexico, where Latinos are the largest ethnic group.
That concern has turned out to be unfounded..In his well-known study on “linguistic life expectancies” in southern California in 2006, RubĂ©n Rumbaut, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, found that Spanish was following the same trajectory as other languages in America had—just more slowly. He established that only 5% of fourth-generation Mexican-Americans in southern California could speak Spanish very well: “After at least 50 years of continuous Mexican migration into southern California, Spanish appears to draw its last breath in the third generation.”
But here's the catch. Professor Rumbaut found that bilingualism is good for your pocketbook:
Controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, parents’ socioeconomic status and living with parents, he found that fluent bilinguals in southern California made nearly $3,000 more per year than Californians who spoke only English.
I know that it was good for me. In a very real sense, I am a demographer because I could read and write Spanish when I got to college. In my sophomore year as a sociology major at the University of California, Berkeley, I needed a job and it turned out that Professor Kingsley Davis was looking for a student to hire. He had just completed a year as President of the Population Association of America (and had previously been President of the American Sociological Association) and needed an undergraduate research assistant who was literate in Spanish to help him with a grant he had just gotten to study the demography of Latin America. He hired me and the rest, as they say, is history...

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