Census 2000 Brings out the Alarmists


When the 1990 Census released data on language use, English-only advocates in Congress began trumpeting the news that 32 million Americans were unable, or unwilling, to speak the national language. What was the country coming to? Shouldn't it act quickly to ensure "the legal protection of English" before Babel engulfed us all? 

In reality, the 1990 Census showed that a healthy majority of the 32 million were fluent bilinguals. Less than 3 percent of U.S. residents spoke English "not well" or "not at all." While the percentage of Americans who spoke another language at home was indeed expanding, so was the percentage of language minorities who spoke English "very well"; the growth rates were nearly identical. 

Results from the Census 2000 Supplementary Survey – a preview of the 2000 Census – showed similar trends over the last decade, and generated similar kinds of hysteria. This time the scaremongers included the Washington Post, which editorialized darkly about a nation where "nearly one in five Americans do not speak English at home" – although this was not exactly what the Census surveyed. Even more "shameful," in the Post's view, was the finding that "only two-thirds of school-age children in Spanish-speaking homes describe themselves as speaking English very well." It reasoned that, since "children pick up languages with relative ease, and the school system ought to be able to deliver near universal fluency," then bilingual education must be to blame. 
I submitted an oped article in response, pointing out some rather salient flaws in this argument. The Washington Post declined to publish it. 

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