speak a common language: Spanish. This fact—not place, not race, not citizenship—is the single greatest difference between Hispanics and non-Hispanics in the United States. As a core issue in the Hispanic experience, language raises important questions about divided national loyalties and the cohesion of Hispanicity as a panethnic identity; about social integration and labor market prospects in an English-dominant society; and, more generally, about the terms of belonging in U.S. society. In this context, and independent from discussions of educational policy, bilingualism is an essential dimension of language shift with major implications for social integration.20
Altogether, more than 28 million U.S. residents ages 5 and older spoke Spanish at home in 2000—about 10 million more than the total number of persons who spoke all other languages combined. To a casual observer, particularly in areas where Hispanics are highly concentrated, the ubiquity of Spanish—on storefronts, on election ballots, and in airports, for example—signals the emergence of a bilingual nation by default, if not by design. Although this may be the case on the streets of America, in fact the pervasiveness of Spanish-language use at home is a transitory phenomenon that largely reflects immigration patterns. It is true that the vast majority of Hispanics born abroad—93 percent—speak some Spanish at home, compared with only 63 percent of those native born. What those figures fail to convey, however, is that among remaining bilinguals Spanish fluency erodes rapidly over time and across generations.
Unlike foreign-born young people, who have an opportunity to improve their linguistic skills as they progress through U.S. schools, relatively few adults who immigrate pursue their education beyond age 25. This reduces the labor market prospects of foreign-born, working-age Hispanics compared with whites or blacks, who are largely proficient in English. Only one-third of foreign-born working-age Hispanics are fluent in English, compared with about 88 percent of their U.S.-born counterparts and virtually all non-Hispanic blacks and whites. Men and women are about equally proficient in English, but notable differences occur across Hispanic subgroups. Roughly a quarter of Mexican immigrants claim fluency in English, compared with half of Cubans born abroad and even larger shares of island-born Puerto Ricans. These differences reflect mainly length of U.S. residence and to a lesser extent educational levels. Variation in English fluency is minimal among U.S.-born Hispanics, with proficiency levels hovering around 90 percent for the three largest subgroups—Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans (see Figure 3-2).