66 Million US Residents Speak A Foreign Language At Home

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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The number of U.S. residents who speak a language other than English at home has doubled over the past 25 years, as the foreign-born population has surged to historically high levels, according to a new report.

About 66 million U.S. residents speak a foreign language in the home — up six million since 2010. That figure is nearly twice what it was in 1990 and three times the amount in 1980.

Today, more than one in five U.S. residents speaks a foreign language at home, and the absolute total of foreign language speakers is higher than at any point in U.S. history, according to Steve Camarota and Karen Zeigler of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Camarota and Zeigler take their numbers from recently released data in the 2016 American Community Survey (ACS), an annual Census Bureau review of more than two million U.S. households. The CIS report includes the foreign-born population — naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, temporary workers and foreign students, and illegal immigrants — and native-born Americans who speak a foreign language at home.

As a share of the overall population, 21.6 percent of U.S. residents speak a foreign language at home, which is almost twice the share in 1980, when it was 11 percent. The growing proportion of people who speak a language other than English has naturally coincided with a period of high immigration over the last two decades. Since 2000, the immigrant population has grown by about 40 percent to a total of 44 million — more than one in eight U.S. residents.

Spanish is the most commonly spoken non-English language by a wide margin, with about 40.5 million U.S. residents using it at home. Not surprisingly, the states that have the most residents who speak a foreign language in the home are also those with the largest Hispanic populations. In California, which is home to about 15 million Latinos, 45 percent of state residents speak a language other than English at home.

The story is similar in Texas and New Mexico, where 36 and 35 percent of residents speak a foreign language at home, respectively.

The growing number of people who speak a foreign language at home has implications for educational attainment and assimilation into mainstream American society, particularly on the part of Hispanic immigrants and their children. About two-thirds of Hispanic immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least 15 years can be considered “functionally illiterate” in English, according to a report by independent public policy analyst Jason Richwine.

Difficulty with English persists among the children and grandchildren of those immigrants, with 22 percent of second-generation and 24 percent of third-generation Hispanic students scoring “below basic” on the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) test of English proficiency. People in the “below basic” category possess only a simple vocabulary and sentence comprehension, and they cannot complete tasks such as reading multiple pages of a document or making inferences from charts and graphs.

Students with a limited grasp of English have diminished job prospects and also create addition fiscal burdens on public school districts. In states where a large share of students speak a foreign language at home, a significant slice of the education budget is typically set aside for limited English proficiency (LEP) students.

California taxpayers in 2016 spent $16.15 billion on the state’s LEP students — 27 percent of the $60.42 billion in education funds that came from state and local sources that year, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

In California, 44 percent of public school students speak a foreign language at home, according to Camarota and Zeigler. That figure is about one in three for Texas, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, and Nevada.

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