Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Immigrant Parents

  • Barbara Zurer PearsonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2421-1



Immigrant A person who goes to live permanently in a foreign country.

Bilingualism The practice of speaking or signing in two or more languages, with varying degrees of proficiency. Synonym, multilingualism.

Majority, or Societal Language A language spoken by the majority of the inhabitants of a given region.

Minority, or Heritage Language A language which is not the language of the community, spoken by indigenous peoples or immigrants as part of their cultural heritage, includes the whole range of mastery, from only a few words and incomplete grammar to full fluency.


All humans, except victims of heinous child neglect, grow up speaking the language of their caregivers (Pinker 1994; Rhymer 1993). Indeed, given the right circumstances and enough support for it, people become fluent in two or more languages, such that more than half of the world’s population is estimated to be multilingual (Crystal 2004). When children are raised in a language from birth, they become members of their caregivers’ language community. Children who master a second language before puberty (Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson 2000; Lenneberg et al. 1967) are most likely to learn it without an accent that would mark them as outsiders and can enjoy membership as “insiders” in a second language community. Beyond the instrumental value of enabling direct communication with a larger number of people and access to more economic and cultural resources, participating in an additional language community gives a powerful sense of belonging and strengthens emotional ties with speakers of that language (Gardner and Lambert 1972).

Patterns of Language Use and Abilities Among Immigrant Children

Immigrant parents migrating together to a country where a different language is spoken generally expect that their children will become bilingual in their language of origin, or “heritage language,” and the language of their new host country. The parents might attain some fluency or even deep knowledge of the language of their adopted country, but unlike their children, their speech will likely mark them as foreigners there throughout their lives. Although children may start out slowly, even to the point of having a silent period of several months (Tabors 2008), more typically, they learn a new language to “playground standards” (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) within the first year, sometimes within a few months (Cummins 1979a). Even children as young as 6 years have been observed to take on the role of language broker for their slower-learning parents. It takes the child longer to develop enough proficiency for age-appropriate progress in academic programs in the medium of the new language, acquiring Cummins’ “Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency,” or CALP, within 3–5 years. Finally, proficiency levels asymptote about 8 years post-immigration (Hakuta and D’Andrea 1992). Most developed countries have school programs to transition immigrant children to the societal language, and children need little encouragement to adopt the language and the popular culture of their new peers.

Less certain is the fate of the language of origin. Immigrant parents are often so focused on their children learning the new language, they take the first language (L1) for granted (Jarmel and Schneider 2009). While learning a second language (L2) does not require the loss of the first, without special attention to the first language in the process of learning the second, a weakening or loss of the language of the homeland is more likely than proficient bilingual abilities (Lambert 1977). Thus, in theory, children of immigrants are in an ideal position to establish robust bilingualism that will allow them to participate as full-fledged members of two language communities. In practice, however, that is not always the case.

Language Assimilation Across Generations

The classic timetable for linguistic assimilation into a new language community spanned three generations (Dorian 1982; Haugen 1972): the immigrants themselves remained stronger, or “dominant,” in the old language; their children, the second generation, learned or retained the old language but became native or near-native speakers of the new language; and the grandchildren were dominant, or even monolingual in the new language. However, linguistic assimilation in the USA appears to have been compressed into two generations (Rumbaut et al. 2006; Veltman 2000), or less (Polinsky and Kagan 2007).

“Generation,” in any event, may be too coarse a term to adequately describe the language outcomes for the many different trajectories of immigrants. Hakuta and D’Andrea (1992), in a study of several hundred Mexican-background teenagers in California, subdivided the generations in order to probe more carefully which children would become robustly bilingual, and who would struggle with one or the other language. In their analysis, three generations became six “depths.” Depth 1 comprised those who immigrated after age 10, (with an average of 3 years in the USA at the time of the study); Depth 2 arrived in the new country between ages 5 and 10; and Depth 3 arrived before age 5. The second generation was split according to whether both parents were born abroad (Depth 4) or only one (Depth 5). Depth 6 comprised the third generation, that is, students with at least one parent and associated grandparents born in the USA.

Proficiency measures showed that children at Depth 3 (from the first generation) and Depth 4 (from the second generation) had the strongest skills in both languages. The English of Depth-2 children showed significant progress over Depth 1, but both groups remained dominant in their L1. At the other end of the spectrum, proficiency levels for Depths 5 and 6 were not significantly different from each other. Both showed weak Spanish scores and strong English scores. Importantly, the high level of skill in both languages of Depths 3 and 4 demonstrated that progress in English did not depend on loss of Spanish. Interviews revealed that the choice to speak predominantly in the majority L2 shifted before proficiency did. Parent language preferences shifted later, after Depth 4.

Patterns of Bilingual Language Use in the Home

In contrast to children with two parents who spoke the same heritage language in the home, children with parents who immigrated separately from different countries, or with only one immigrant parent, have different language resources. A common household arrangement for this group, especially popular in Europe and Canada, is for one parent to speak one language to the child and the other to speak another language – so-called OPOL, “one parent/one language.” One of these languages may be the community language, but often the community language will be a third language. De Houwer (2009) investigated family language practices and bilingual outcomes for 1,450 mostly Dutch/French families in Flanders, and she reanalyzed Yamamoto’s (2002) report of 188 bilingual families in Japan. The analysis took into account whether the family used OPOL or another strategy and whether the mother was the source of the minority language. Like Hakuta, de Houwer found that the crucial element was for both parents to speak in the minority language in the home. Fewer than half of the children with parents who spoke together in the societal language grew up speaking two languages, whereas when the parents spoke together in the nonsocietal language, more than 93% of their children spoke both that language and the societal language.

Conclusion: Language Transmission in Bilingual Communities

According to Haugen (1972) and Fishman (1991, 2001), community bilingualism is transitional. When two languages compete in the same domains, one language will win out. Fishman’s advice to maintain or revive bilingualism is for the weaker language to carve out a location or function – e.g., the home or religious observances – where the minority language is used exclusively and language choice does not need to be constantly renegotiated.

Fishman’s cautions are most commonly understood in the context of indigenous languages at risk for extinction, not with a language that ranks high on the UN Language Vitality Scale like Spanish in Miami-Dade County, Florida (UNESCO 2003). Hispanic immigrants are more numerous than native born, and government, business, and educational leadership are in the hands of the immigrants who control most of the wealth of the region (US Census 2015). Four-fifths share a global language, with millions of speakers in many localities around the world (Moseley 2010). There should be ample support for the “majority-minority” language to be transmitted to succeeding generations. However, researchers have found in Miami that “Depth 4”/second generation children speak mostly “kitchen Spanish” if they speak Spanish at all, and even fewer are literate in their L2 (DCPS 2015; Hassan 2006; Oller and Eilers 2002).

Why would so few children in the second generation there learn or speak the language of their immigrant parents? Two causal factors stand out. (1) Lack of awareness. With continued immigration fueling the overwhelming presence of Spanish on the street and in media in Miami, there is no sense of threat to the language (Glazer 1966; Eilers et al. 2002). Possibly, parents would be more motivated to take specific steps to transmit the language to their children if, instead of full acceptance, there were harsh suppressions against it, like those for example, imposed unsuccessfully on Catalan in Franco’s Spain. (2) Lack of education in Spanish. In Miami, children of immigrants enter a primarily English-only educational system. In most states, including Florida, there is no law precluding education in two languages, and there is a strong research base to support it (Collier and Thomas 2004; Cummins 1979b; Oller and Eilers 2002), but ironically, it is rarely offered. Only a handful of schools offer a dual-language curriculum (CAL 2004; DCPS 2015).

In a running survey over the course of 10 years, several hundred Hispanic-heritage students in Miami from middle school through university, (Eilers et al. 2006; Pearson and McGee 1993) almost all said they wanted their children to learn Spanish. However, on the very same survey, the students gave evidence against their being able to do so. They reported that they, themselves, spoke to their parents at least half in Spanish when the parents spoke to them in “mostly Spanish,” especially if both their parents were recently arrived in the United States. However, when the students were free to choose their language, with siblings and friends for example, most reported speaking “mostly English with a few words of Spanish,” a pattern observed within the first generation, within their first months in this country (Pearson and McGee 1993). Unless these students, when they become parents, were to make a more intentional effort than their parents did to maintain their heritage language in the home and advocate for heritage language programs in their schools, they would be unlikely to reverse the natural shift toward the majority language.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Massachusetts AmherstAmherstUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Carey Fitzgerald
    • 1
  1. 1.University of South Carolina - BeaufortBlufftonUSA