In California and across the country, more people are speaking Spanish, Korean or a slew of other languages besides English at home — a phenomenon that has historically set off heated debate about how immigrants will assimilate into American life.
Yet in recent years, as other tongues became more common in American homes, people nationwide were no less likely to speak English with ease, a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau shows. Scholars say slowing immigration has given rise to a more settled population of people born abroad.
“When you have a new burst of immigration, it may look like people aren’t learning English,” said Dowell Myers, director of the Population Dynamics Research Group at USC. But as the report shows, “that’s only temporary.”
The numbers reveal that in recent years, the continued rise in other languages has not come at the expense of English proficiency. Between 2007 and 2011, the percentage of U.S. residents who spoke another language at home rose slightly from 19.7% to 20.8%. During those same years, the share of people who spoke another language and did not speak English “very well” stayed flat at 8.7%, the report found.
Spanish speakers, in particular, became a bigger chunk of the population, yet the share of people nationwide who speak Spanish at home and struggle with English actually shrank very slightly, the report found. The reason: Spanish speakers became more likely to speak English smoothly.
That pattern was echoed in California, where nearly 44% of people speak something other than English at home. More Californians now speak Spanish at home — and increasing numbers of them also speak English very well, a Los Angeles Times analysis of Census Bureau estimates showed.
Experts tie those numbers to a tangle of interrelated trends: Immigration has slowed, crimping the numbers of new arrivals who have trouble with English, said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of the Pew Hispanic Center. As a result, Latino immigrant adults are spending longer in the United States, on average, than they did earlier in the millennium, giving them more time to pick up the language.
In addition, rising numbers of Americans are the U.S.-born children of immigrants from Latin America, who use English with much more ease than their parents. Census Bureau data show that most Spanish speakers born here are comfortable with English, much more so than those born outside the country.
“The fear of English somehow losing out in the linguistic battleground in America is really misguided,” said Leo R. Chavez, an anthropology professor at UC Irvine. If anything, Chavez said, the risk is that the grandchildren of Latino immigrants will be unable to speak Spanish.
On top of that, English may be holding steady nationwide, even as more people speak other languages at home, because immigrants are venturing into new areas of the country, said Manuel Pastor, director of USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
“Immigrants are moving into brand-new locations where it’s more difficult to survive in Spanish or Chinese — there’s no East L.A. or San Gabriel Valley,” Pastor said, naming two parts of the Los Angeles area that have been historic magnets for immigration. That brings added urgency to learning English, he said.
The Census Bureau report also revealed surging numbers of people speaking Chinese, Vietnamese and African languages, while speakers of Italian and German have dwindled nationwide. Though English proficiency nationwide held steady from 2007 to 2011, it remained lower than in 2000.
The metropolitan area that spans Los Angeles, Long Beach and Santa Ana continued to rank high in the percentage of people who speak something other than English at home — 54.3% — exceeding other major urban areas such as New York, Chicago, Houston and Miami, the report showed.