Making Sense of Census 2000,
By James Crawford

Forty-seven million US residents – nearly one in five – speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2000 census. This group more than doubled over the past two decades, while the population that speaks only English expanded by just a fraction (see Table 1). If current rates of growth continue, a majority of Americans will be minority language speakers by 2044. Quite a sea change in a country renowned for its monolingualism. The implications for a national language policy (or lack thereof) are enormous.

All this assumes, of course, that the census numbers can be believed, an issue that deserves special attention when it comes to language. These decennial snapshots are instructive, to be sure. But like all photographs taken from a single vantage point, they can be distorted and misleading. For example, the growth of non-English languages was so prominent in 2000 that it’s easy to miss a powerful countertrend: the growth of English at the expense of heritage languages.

The latest figures show that fluent bilinguals – respondents who say they speak English ‘very well’ – account for more than half of minority language speakers. That is, they outnumber those with less than full proficiency in English. Both groups are increasing at roughly the same rates. This pattern is especially striking when you consider that 42% of the foreign-born population counted in 2000 arrived during the 1990s and had less than 10 years to learn the language.With somanynewcomers speaking languages other than English, it is harder to appreciate how many who immigrated just a few years earlier have become fluent, and often dominant, in English. Close scrutiny of the new census data suggests that the pace of Anglicization in this country has never been faster.

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