MICROPOLIS: Are Ethnic Enclaves Bad for Immigrants?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 - 04:00 AM

Those in ethnic enclaves like Chinatown in Manhattan benefit from strong social networks but are less likely to learn English. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Ethnic enclaves are among the jewels of New York — places where the city's immigrants can ease their way into American life while holding onto aspects of the old country. And of course, for outsiders, opportunities to get the "most authentic" dumplings/kababs/tamales. But in some cases there's a serious downside: they stifle English proficiency and limit opportunities to climb the economic ladder.

"I think that in terms of the ability to speak English, ethnic enclaves are not good," said Brigitte Waldorf, a professor at Purdue University who has co-authored a paper on the enclave effect. 

Waldorf's research suggested that a 35-year-old woman from China — married, living in the U.S. for five years, earning $25,000 a year, and without a high school degree — had a 28 percent chance of knowing English if she were the only Chinese speaker in a given neighborhood. But if she were to live in a Chinese enclave — say, 10 percent Chinese — the likelihood that she would speak English would drop dramatically: to 13.6 percent.

It matters, she argued, because English is "an absolute must in American society in order to be fully integrated."

And it's not just immigrants themselves. As we explore in this episode of Micropolis, kids who are raised in certain enclaves are less likely to succeed in life.


Karen Frillmann


More in:

Comments [10]

As an immigrant myself I must admit that some immigrants just simply self-segregate for the comfort of not having to learn the language. As per their children becoming doctors or whaever we consider an "accomplished person"I find it really sad for those who come to the US and never learn the language, have to depend on others to communicate and miss out on so much --e.g. all cultural activities, that cities like NY have to offer. But to each its own.

I vote for coming to the US and learning the language so that one can participate and enjoy what this country has to offer.

Dec. 12 2013 05:42 PM
R Rivera from New York

Another idiotic piece that has aired on WNYC this week (and that's only when I'm listening)! Yes, enclaves of non-English speaking portions of our population remove the need for many to learn English, but that's where the facts end. Unlike their socioeconomic counterparts, the children of these immigrants are actually learning to speak and read English - they have to, and at a rate much faster than English-speaking children would be taught, say, Spanish. While their parents may be what we would consider undereducated, they aren't exposed to the same poor English grammar skills and limited vocabularies that affect the success of other poor children. The fact that many don't end up in college is often a function of family needs and expectations. For example, they may need to help contribute to living expenses by getting a job. But you can be sure that most parents are telling their children, daily, that they didn't come all the way to New York, and make multiple sacrifices, for them to drop out of high school and become useless, unskilled human beings.

Dec. 12 2013 01:48 PM
Sofya Aptekar from Brooklyn, NY

To add to what John Hunt and John Casey correctly state above, the Purdue research paper on which the segment is based concludes that the impact of ethnic concentration is "small, especially for Mexican immigrants."

Moreover, it is inaccurate to describe their findings in terms of enclaves. The study is based on geographic areas that are much larger than most people's idea of an ethnic enclave, namely Public Use Microdata Areas, which have a population of at least 100,000 and up to 200,000. The authors acknowledge this major shortcoming in the paper as well.

Finally, there is nothing in the research to give any indication of immigrants' motivations to learn English. We cannot know that from analysis of Census data. Interpreting the results in this manner serves to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about immigrants. Attention on individual choices to learn English make it palatable to discuss draconian measures such as mandating where people live, instead of focusing on structural forces that create ever increasing levels of inequality among immigrant and non-immigrant Americans alike.

I am puzzled by the wide gulf between the findings of the study and the reporting, both by WNYC and by Purdue Agricultural News (embedded link in the article).

I would be happy to provide details as well.

Sofya Aptekar, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity and CUNY Graduate Center

Dec. 12 2013 11:24 AM
TOM from Brooklyn's Chinatown

Only 5% of the need was met with classes? For the rest there was Bob Barker & Price Is Right! He should get a Medal of Freedom.

Immigrants get no assistance? Look around NYC: that assistance is everywhere and from everyone. We think it our duty to see it done. We pay dearly for it, and every year we launch good & ready new Americans out onto the wild wild mainland.

Dec. 11 2013 02:42 PM
maria fernadez from NYC

this stories sounds like something from "How the other half lives" which is totally ridiculous. My mother (went school up to the 8th grade) lived in a totally Hispanic community she never spoke a word of English her entire life(40 years in the US) yet she has one daughter who is a Doctor and another who is an lawyer plus a son who served in the military all his life. All her children speak English and are gainfully employed and the following generation speaks Spanish and English plus college educated. Furthermore the 3rd generation of grand kids are fluent English speakers and high achievers.
Additionally, in NYC many of the neighborhoods are getting gentrified therefore the rest of New Yorkers are pushing Hispanics out of there communities so do not worry no matter where they go English will follow them.
what is truly scary is how US citizens lack the ability to speak other languages. The world is multilingual. Places like Dominican Republic which is a small country kids learn Spanish, English and French(laws are French based and share island with Haiti). I think places like England and America need to face up that having many languages is a good thing and makes us smarter to be able to have a more compassionate view of out other human beings that we share the planet with.
Please, Please promote and use Americans who know other languages to bring about a more peaceful world where trying to understand each other from our diversity is a good thing - maybe we can study this?
I am grateful that my mother never spoke to me in English that way i learned Spanish. But also I am glad that my mother did not teach me in a broken-English which would have made it more difficult for me and my siblings to compete in school with inadequate language skills. She spoke to me in her master language which she had more proficiency in - Thank God for that!

Dec. 10 2013 11:10 PM
Social Briton from LONDON

This is a massive problem in England (where we have an unwavering commitment to, errm: English). Yet, European, African and Arab emigre don't mix in very easily. As contentious as Americans are to having a clue about timelines of History, and (why) Ethnic group A might not mix well with Ethnic group B ... There are indeed vulgarities therein. Things aren't as flat out as you might like them to be. Lets be honest, there is no stable, distinguishable "American Ethnicity" as yet. You simply haven't ply'd one.

In my experience (in NYC), I've met adults from Puerto Rico – which is just another American property – who seem to resist learning English to obviate assimilation and possibly, to obviate FAILURE. Thus, why not submit to generational poverty and lean on the low end of the state? Sounds good to me! This happens all the time in the UK with foreign nationals who get stuck on the dole and in Council housing (like your Projects).

The looming dearth of a NATIONAL IDENTITY also gives many 3rd world emigre a false sense of complexity and pride - this is especially true with (Oriental) Asian emigre. The reality is that Asians are a minority within a minority and their numbers don't scale to well if you isolate them into ethnic enclaves. Self-segregating amongst foreign-nationals in English speaking countries continues to be a crisis for these reasons amongst many ....

Dec. 10 2013 10:22 PM
Gerald Fnord from Palos Verdes, Ca

It's not either/or: ethnic enclaves can allow people who might be able to learn to fit-in with the broader society not to do so, and isolates prey for that ethnic group's criminals, even as they prevent those not so able to adapt from being eaten alive by society at's much the same as the twin problems of people's being conned by outsiders who know the rules better and being conned by co-members of the group, whom they may think they can trust.

Dec. 10 2013 06:26 PM
H N from NY

I agree that there are several other major variables involved with English acquisition, but I also agree that living in an ethnic enclave may impede an individuals' willingness to acquire new language skills. If an individual is working long hours in a small business (e.g., restaurants, laundromats) and are able to communicate using their native language(as many newer Chinese immigrants in NYC do), I don't think they'll have the time, money or energy to take an English class, nor do I think it is their priority.

Dec. 10 2013 12:29 PM
John Hunt from New York

Dr. Waldorf also points out that, "In the U.S. there is basically no assistance with any sort of assimilation. Immigrants come into the country, and they are on their own."

While English language and civics programs do exist, the Center for an Urban Future has consistently found that classes can accommodate less than 5% of the need in New York City. Waiting lists for ESL programs are often years long and funding cuts are a constant reality. This fact belies the myth that immigrants "don't want to learn English." In fact, immigrants are highly motivated to learn English to access better jobs, help their kids with homework, participate more in their local communities, and attend college or training programs. However, the opportunity to do so is often non-existent.

Blaming enclaves for "non-assimilation" is a facile explanation for a complex issue. Would anyone label the German, Italian, Jewish or Cuban communities in the US as unsuccessful when they clearly arrived in the US to enclaves?

John Hunt
NYC Coalition for Adult Literacy

Dec. 10 2013 12:03 PM
John Casey from New York

This story suggests that ethnic enclaves are a major determinant of English acquisition. They aren't. Note the following:

1) The three major determinants are: age at arrival; prior education; years of residence in the U.S. Living in an enclave is only a minor determinant.

2) Given that immigrants spend at lot of time at work, the other major determinant is work-related English classes. If employers or related organizations (professional or business associations, unions, etc.) provide English then immigrants have more have a chance of learning English. In the U.S. this generally does not happen.

3) Leaving aside any of these considerations, then availability of classes at convenient times, with good teachers is fundamental. Yet the story doesn't mention that most programs are underfunded. There are long waiting lists and many classes are given by volunteers.

I would be happy to provide details

John Casey, Baruch College, CUNY (and former Director of the City of NY literacy/English program)

Dec. 10 2013 08:07 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


About Micropolis

Little Bits of a Big City


Supported by