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Second-Generation Americans Less Driven Than New Arrivals

May 1996

When immigrant children arrive in the United States, they work hard and get good grades. Second-generation Americans--children born in the U.S. to immigrant parents--are another matter.

Sociologists Alejandro Portes (Johns Hopkins University) and Rubén G. Rumbaut (Michigan State University) made this discovery when they surveyed approximately 5,200 eighth and ninth graders of Asian, Latin American and Caribbean descent in San Diego and Miami. They found that, compared to the first generation, the children in the second generation:

  • Spend less time on homework. While 36% of second-generation Americans spend two hours per night or more on homework, 44% of recent arrivals (in U.S. nine years or less) do so.
  • Watch more television. Among second-generation Americans, 70% watch two or more hours per day, compared with 65% of recent arrivals.
  • Get lower grades. Overall grade point average was 2.46 among second-generation Americans, compared with 2.65 for recent arrivals.

Even among new arrivals, the drive to achieve wanes over time. Holding family income and education constant, the more recently arrived students have higher academic aspirations and also achieve more academically. It is no coincidence that these students also watch less television and spend more time on homework than those who have been in the U.S. longer. Academic achievement appears to be completely unrelated to whether English is spoken in the home.

Portes and Rumbaut conclude that American society and culture is sapping immigrants' enthusiasm. Their findings have been borne out in three unrelated studies using different research techniques and sample populations.

The studies, presented at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, are among the first to address the realities of life among recent immigrants and second-generation Americans, says Rumbaut, who hopes that the findings will help politicians, school boards and the general public deal with issues related to assimilation. "Fears about immigration and what it means to be an American can best be addressed by learning what is really going on," he says.

On a positive note, the survey found that most young immigrants learn English rapidly. More than 90% were found to speak English well or very well. Far fewer knew their parents' language. One third of the students surveyed in Miami speak their parents' language poorly or not at all. In San Diego, that is true for more than half.

Yet the majority want to retain the identity of their country of origin -- or their parents'. Most prefer not to refer to themselves as Americans; instead, they claim their parents' nationality (e.g., Mexican) or use a hyphenated variant (e.g., Mexican-American).

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