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Demographic Change and Language

"Today there are more than 32 million Americans who are not proficient in English."
 – Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.)
"Consider this: 40 million Americans will be non-English-language 
proficient by the year 2000."
– Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.)
English Only advocates seem intent on confusing two groups: U.S. residents who don't speak English and those who speak languages other than English. These populations are not the same. The 1990 Census found that most minority language speakers are bilingual – 94.2 percent of them speak English with varying levels of proficiency.

Both populations, minority language speakers and limited English speakers, are growing rapidly because of immigration and birthrates higher than the U.S. average. During the 1980s the increase in foreign-born Americans was 41 percent – roughly the same as the increase in those who reported difficulty with English (37 percent) and those who spoke other languages at home (38 percent). Meanwhile, the overall population increased by less than 10 percent (see Table I).

Only 1.8 million persons – 8/10 of one percent of U.S. residents – spoke no English at all in 1990. It is hard to see how this group could total 40 million by the year 2000, unless half the population of Mexico were suddenly to relocate North of the Border. Perhaps that's what the Congressmen secretly fear.

Table I. Census Data on Language Spoken at Home and Self-Reported English-Speaking Ability, United States, 1980 and 1990
Home Language 1980 % 1990 % Change
All speakers,
age 5+
210,247,455 100.0 230,445,777 100.0 +9.6%
English only  187,187,415 89.0 198,600798 86.2 +6.1%
Language other than English 23,060,040 11.0 31,844,979 13.8 +38.1%
Speaks English very well 12,879,004 6.1 17,862,477 7.8 +38.7%
... well 5,957,544 2.8 7,310,301 3.2 +22.7%
... not well 3,005,503 1.4 4,826,958 2.1 +60.6%
... not at all 1,217,989 0.6 1,845,243 0.8 +51.5%
... with some "difficulty"* 10,181,036 4.8 13,982,502 6.1 +37.3%

*Includes all persons who report speaking Englishless than "very well."

Sources: 1980 Census of Population, vol. 1, chap. D, pt. 1 (PC80-1-D1-A); U.S. Census Bureau, "Language Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English for United States, Regions, and States: 1990" (1990 CPH-L-133).

"For the first 180 years of our Nation, we were bound together by a common language. Immigrants came to this country knowing they had to learn English. Twenty-five years ago we went away from this." 
– Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.)
"Tragically, many immigrants these days refuse to learn English! They never become productive members of society. They remain stuck in a linguistic and economic ghetto, many living off welfare and costing working Americans millions of tax dollars every year."
English First fundraising letter
Turn-of-the-century Jews, Italians, and Slavs also encountered such invidious comparisons – in 1911 a federal Immigration Commission accused them of failing to learn English as rapidly as the Germans, Irish, and Scandinavians who came before them. In fact, immigrants' rates of Anglicization have increased throughout U.S. history. Today they are higher than ever before.

In the 1890 census there were 4.5 times as many non-English speakers, proportionally speaking, than in the 1990 census (despite its superior ability to count such groups). A century ago there were sizable enclaves in the Southwest, Louisiana, the upper Midwest, and New England, where colonial, immigrant, and indigenous languages predominated – far larger than their counterparts today. (See Table II.)

Table II. Percentage of Non-English-Speaking Persons, 1890 and 1990
1890: 1990
U.S. population 3.62 0.80 4.5: 1
   New Mexico 65.11 0.92 71: 1
   Arizona 28.23 1.10 26: 1
   Wisconsin 11.37 0.11 103: 1
      Milwaukee 19.72 n/a n/a
   Louisiana 8.37 0.12 70: 1
   California 8.26 2.93 3: 1
   New Hampshire 5.67 0.08 71: 1
      Manchester 17.31 n/a n/a
   Foreign-born whites 15.60 n/a n/a

*Inability to speak English, persons aged 10years and above.
†Speaks English "not at all," persons aged 5 years and above.

Sources: U.S. Department of the Interior, CensusOffice, Compendium
of the Eleventh Census: 1890, Part III (Washington, D.C.: Government
Printing Office, 1897), pp. 348-53; U.S. Census Bureau, "Language
Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English for United States, 
Regions, and States: 1990" (1990 CPH-L-133).

The rate of linguistic assimilation is clearly accelerating, a phenomenon that can be seen even in the relatively brief span of the 1980s. Unfortunately, a wide variety of language questions were asked in censuses between 1900 and 1970; thus comparable data are unavailable for those years. It should also be noted that the latest language figures have significant limitations – especially the reliance on self-reports, which are inevitably subjective.

Fortunately, identical language questions were asked in 1980 and 1990; so language trends among immigrants can be plotted, as shown in Table III. From these data three things are clear: 

  • The number of minority language speakers is growing rapidly.
  • The number of proficient bilinguals is growing even more rapidly.
  • There is a direct relationship between English proficiency and length of residence in the U.S.A.




    Table III. Language Patterns of Immigrants, by Length of U.S. Residence, 1980 and 1990 (000s)
    1980 % 1990 % Change
    age 5+
    210,247,555 100.0 230,445,777 100.0 +9.6%
      Native-born  196,388 93.4 210,940 91.5 +7.4%
      Foreign-born  13,860 6.6 19,506 8.5 +40.7%
    Recent Immigrants
    Ten years or less in U.S. 5,340 100.0 8,403 100.0 +57.4%
      Speak only 
      English at   home
    868 16.3 1,010 12.0 +16.4%
      Speak other 
      language at 
    4,471 83.7 7,393 88.0 +65.4%
      No difficulty
    2,198 41.2 4,399 52.4 +100.1%
    Earlier Immigrants
    More than 10 years in U.S. 8,520 100.0 11,104 100.0 +30.3%
      Speak only 
      English at 
    3,262 38.3 3,066 27.6 -6.0%
      Speak other 
      language at 
    5,258 61.7 8,037 72.4 +52.9%
      No difficulty
    5,734 67.3 6,978 62.8 +21.7%

    *Includes all foreign-born who speak only English at home or speak English "very well."

    Source: Dorothy Waggoner, "Are Current Home Speakers of Non-English Languages Learning English?" Numbers and Needs 5, no. 6 (Nov. 1995): 1, 3. (This newsletter on language and demography is available from Box G1H/B, 3900 Watson Place, N.W., Washington, DC 20016.)

    Copyright © 1997 by James Crawford. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this page for free, noncommercial distribution, provided that credit is given and this notice is included. Requests for permission to reproduce in any other form should be emailed to this address. But before writing, please read my permissions FAQ