Politics

Foreign Language Speakers in U.S. Hit All-Time High

65.5 million people in America don't use English at home and have wide variation in language proficiency

The number of people living in the United States who speak foreign languages at home hit an all-time high last year of 65.5 million, according to new estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The data come from the American Community Survey, an annual survey that collects information on scores of subjects.

The 65.5 million people age five and older who speak languages other than English at home in 2016 was up by about 800,000 over the previous year, and has increased by about 40 percent since 2000.

The number of foreign-language speakers is about 50 percent higher than the total foreign-born population. Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, said that is a function mostly of the large number of U.S.-born children — 16.5 million — with immigrant parents.

“Almost all of it is related to immigration … There are 60 million immigrants and their children living in America. That’s an extraordinary number.”

“There’s a huge population of people here who are speaking a language other than English at home who were born in the United States,” he said. “Almost all of it is related to immigration … There are 60 million immigrants and their children living in America. That’s an extraordinary number.”

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The 65.5 million people speaking foreign languages include many who speak English and another language fluently. But 40 percent of them say they speak English “less than very well.”

And the real percentage may be even higher. Research published this year by the Center for Immigration Studies found that some foreign-born residents judge themselves better English speakers than their performance on language tests indicate. The study found 16 percent of immigrants who self-evaluated themselves as speaking English “very well” score “below basic” on a literacy test. And that was the case for 43 percent who judged themselves as speaking English “well.”

Experts said the continued growth of people who speak foreign languages at home is the inevitable byproduct of immigration policies that have rapidly increased the foreign-born share of U.S. residents since 1970.

“The U.S. has undergone decades of mass immigration unlike anything the nation has experienced in history,” said Dave Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “We continue to take in millions and millions of immigrants year in and year out without any sense of why we’re doing this and where we want to take ourselves.”

The census data reveal wide disparities in English proficiency. For instance, among the 40.5 million Spanish speakers — the most commonly spoken foreign language — only 59 percent say they speak English “very well.” The compares with 79 percent of the 1.2 million French speakers and 85 percent of German speakers who do.

Ray said the United States has paused mass immigration after previous waves of newcomers. He said the lull periods helped with assimilation. But the current wave continues unabated.

“That combined with the non-assimilation, multicultural model shoved down the throats of our children raise questions about the long-term health of our country,” he said. “There are many forces that are actually working against the need to assimilate.”

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Camarota said bilingualism is a double-edged sword, opening more opportunities for people who speak more than one language but creating divisions and fraying the cohesiveness of a country.

“It can be an enormous benefit to an individual and a curse for a society all at the same time,” he said.

Camarota said the existence of large enclaves of Spanish speakers makes it easier to get by without learning English. He pointed out that study conducted by his think tank found that 43 percent of immigrants who arrived more than 15 years ago scored “below basic” on literacy tests.

It has another effect, he said. In regions such as Miami-Dade County, he said, Spanish is so prevalent that it is difficult for English-only speakers to get public-sector jobs.

“You can get crazy outcomes,” Camarota said, “where the foreigner is favored over the citizen.”

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