The Effect of Community Context on Intergenerational Spanish Maintenance and English Proficiency among Latina and Latino Children

by Nancy A. Garrett

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Institution: University of Illinois at Urbana
Advisor(s): Gillian Stevens
Degree: Ph.D. Sociology
Year: 1997
Volume: 200 pages
ISBN-10: 158112001X
ISBN-13: 9781581120011


In this dissertation I investigate how community context affects Spanish language use and English proficiency among Latina and Latino children in the United States, focusing on the children of immigrants. I view children's language attributes through a sociological perspective that recognizes that children learn and use languages within specific social and cultural contexts, and that these contexts have an important effect on language acquisition and use. This theoretical perspective leads to the hypothesis that children's language skills and language use will be affected by the communities they live in. I predict that living in a metropolitan area with a greater propinquity and availability of Spanish speakers will increase a child's likelihood of speaking Spanish, because this will increase opportunities for using and hearing Spanish and promote Spanish within a larger United States context that often devalues languages other than English. At the same time, I hypothesize that community context will have little effect on children's English skills because of the ubiquitous presence of English in the daily life of any U.S. child.

I test these hypotheses using a national sample of children who live in metropolitan areas drawn from the 1990 Census. I find that levels of Spanish maintenance are extremely high among children of Latina/o immigrants, and that a large majority of children who are born in the U.S. speak English fluently. Multivariate analysis demonstrates that several dimensions of a metropolitan area's language context-in particular the saturation and segregation of Spanish speakers-have a strong effect on second-generation children's likelihood of speaking Spanish that persists even after controlling for household- and individual-level variables. Contrary to my original hypothesis, I also find that the language characteristics of the metropolitan area have a significant effect on children's English proficiency. This effect, however, is smaller than the effect of metropolitan context on Spanish use.

This analysis produces a better understanding of the specific elements of household and community context that affect language use. The results imply that children of immigrants are following multiple paths to language adaptation, and that metropolitan context is an important influence on this process of adaptation.