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The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Non-English Languages in the United States



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The Census Bureau has released new data on the number of people in the United States speaking a language other than English at home:

The report shows that the percent speaking English “less than very well” grew from 8.1 percent in 2000 to 8.7 percent in 2007, but stayed at 8.7 percent in 2011. The percent speaking a language other than English at home went from 17.9 percent in 2000 to 19.7 percent in 2007, while continuing upward to 20.8 percent in 2011.

“This study provides evidence of the growing role of languages other than English in the national fabric,” said Camille Ryan, a statistician in the Census Bureau’s Education and Social Stratification Branch and the report’s author. “Yet, at the same time that more people are speaking languages other than English at home, the percentage of people speaking English proficiently has remained steady.”

Of the 60.6 million people who spoke a language other than English at home in 2011, almost two-thirds (37.6 million) spoke Spanish.

Reflecting the overall trend, the percentage speaking Spanish at home grew from 12.0 percent in 2005 to 12.9 percent in 2011. In contrast to the overall trend, however, the percent who spoke Spanish at home but spoke English “less than very well” declined from 5.7 percent to 5.6 percent over the period.

The recent increase in non-English speakers continues a trend dating back three decades. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of people speaking a language other than English climbed 158 percent, compared with 38 percent for the overall population 5 and older. The seven-fold increase in Vietnamese speakers was the highest percentage jump among 17 of the most common languages, while Spanish speakers posted the largest numerical gain (25.9 million). In contrast, the number speaking Italian, German, Polish, Yiddish and Greek declined over the period. [Emphasis added]

I was particularly struck by the dramatic variation in the share of speaking non-English languages at home across states, which ranges from a low of 2 percent in West Virginia to a high of 44 percent in California. It is worth keeping in mind, as the UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman pointed out to me recently, that the 44 percent number includes large numbers of English-dominant immigrants and second-generation Americans who live with non-English-speaking, or non-English-language-dominant, immigrant relatives. Among California residents over the age of 5 who speak a language other than English at home, only 55.7 percent report that they speak English “very well” while 8.4 percent (1.3 million people) report that they do not speak English at all. While bilingualism is, in my view, an unalloyed good, it is troubling that there is such a substantial number of people living in the U.S. who don’t speak English at all. Some will dismiss the idea that a large number of non-English-speakers is a concern, insofar as non-English-speakers tend to be older. It is a problem, however, when non-English-speakers are geographically concentrated, and when the children of non-English-speakers are isolated from larger social networks that can give them access to educational and economic opportunities. Those of us who advocate skill-based immigration often emphasize the importance of English language proficiency. Assuming we are going to regularize the immigration status of unauthorized immigrants in some form or another and non-English-speaking immigrants are going to keep acquiring English language skills at something like the current rate, the stock of non-English-speaking people in the U.S. is going to remain quite high even in the absence of new less-skilled immigration. Increasing the less-skilled immigrant influx will increase the non-English-speaking share of the population, perhaps substantially, and this will tend to exacerbate linguistic isolation and all it entails. 



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