The politics of bilingualism have been a frequent topic of discussion in these pages. Last year, we had a look at a controversy in Maryland, over fast-food workers not speaking English in primarily English-speaking neighborhoods. Earlier this year, we took a look at a North Dakota state legislature bill that would have mandated demonstrated English competency in state schools. What these stories have in common (aside from the chest-thumping of various ideologues) has been an undercurrent of concern that immigrants aren't learning English sufficiently to integrate with the communities in which they live. Now courtesy of the Los Angeles Daily News, an interesting look at the development of economically interdependent communities in Los Angeles where bilingualism is critical to success -- but neither of the languages is English. As the story begins:
Peruvian immigrant Miguel Aliaga always knew that coming to Los Angeles would mean a long struggle mastering a new language. He just never figured that language would be Korean.
The story goes on to provide some anecdotal examples of Korean immigrants who have come to feel the same way about Spanish:
A Korean immigrant - by way of Argentina - Martin Paik writes a column, "Hola Amigo," in the Korea Times that provides conversational Spanish lessons in Korean. He doesn't speak English and finds little reason to, living in Los Angeles.
"In California, Spanish is more important than English," said Paik, a Seoul native. "I haven't found any inconvenience because I don't speak English. ... I don't need to speak English. If you can speak Spanish, you can drive, employers can have clients, you can order in restaurants, you can do anything."
Paik receives his credit card bills in Spanish and orders his office supplies in Korean. He teaches Spanish in Korean at a school he runs in a largely Latino neighborhood near Koreatown.
Most of the 200 students at Martin Spanish School speak little or no English. The only hint of English in the instruction books - which he wrote himself - are on the cover page.
Yoon Seong, a 60-year-old Korean - by way of Spain - said he feels fortunate to know Spanish. He lives in West Hills and said, unlike many of his Korean friends, feels no need to move to Koreatown.
"For me being here, the Hispanic community is the only world for me. I don't need English here. All that you need in California is Spanish."
One wonders what language these quotes were extracted in. But these are admittedly only anecdotal examples; does any data exist to support the alleged trend? As the article itself notes, no government agency is currently following this phenomenon. And Census data doesn't give us a whole lot to go on. The 2000 Census' profile of Los Angeles county tells us that 54.1% of Angelenos primarily speak a language "other than English", and slightly under half of that group rate themselves as speaking English "very well". So at most, about a quarter of the population could be going non-English-bilingual, but we're not done with the numbers just yet.
The Census provides us with a number of cross-tabulations of English proficiency against various demographic variables. This data doesn't allow us any way to directly estimate the number of people who might be learning a second non-English language, but our goal here is to put an upper bound on it. In order to do that, we have two types of tools: 1) counts of the members of the population who speak English "not at all", and 2) counts of members of "linguistically isolated" households, defined by the Census Bureau as "one in which no member 14 years old and over (1) speaks only English or (2) speaks a non-English language and speaks English "very well." In other words, all members 14 years old and over have at least some difficulty with English." Note that these numbers are based off of the "long form" version of the Census, which was only sent to 1/6 of the population; further details about methodology can be found here.
To start off with, we'll use table P19 of those cross-tabs to calculate the percentage of people within each linguistic subgroup who might be candidates for non-English-bilingualism. Note that the data set is for Los Angeles county only, since that's the only place the article alleges this trend is taking place (which isn't to say it might not be interesting to repeat in other places, or nationally). In each column, we're computing the percentage of members of each subgroup who report that they speak no English at all -- not as a percentage of the total population, just as part of the subgroup.
|Age group||Spanish||Other Indo-European||Asian/Pacific||Other|
It might be instructive to compare the rate of zero English proficiency with the rate of native/nonnative birth -- are the people who don't speak English at all doing so because they're isolated while here, or because they didn't start out that way? We can do this using table PCT12 (same link as above). Alas, while they break it down by nativity for the whole 5+ population, they don't subdivide it by the age groups above. Still, it might provide something of a baseline against which to evaluate the numbers above:
Now we're getting somewhere -- native-born members of every subpopulation almost universally speak at least some level of English. The non-native percentages of those with no English skills also are notably larger than the percentages of 18-64 year-olds in all groups, which would tend to support the idea that those who aren't acquiring any familiarity with English are the first-generation immigrants, and not their descendants. Of course, we have to be reserved in adopting that conclusion since we have no way of positively determining a correlation between the two tables -- nothing in the available Census tables (at least not in this summary file) tells us how many members of the 18-64 group are native-born, and how many are not. We also haven't done anything to see if there's a trend, say by comparing the above numbers with 1990 Census data, but some of the numbers above are pretty close to statistical noise as it is, and not worth checking for trends.
Where there is some cause for concern is in the number of "linguistically isolated" individuals. Table PCT14 tells us that some 16% of the total Los Angeles-area population live in households where everybody speaks a language other than English, and nobody over 14 speaks English "very well". Fully 51% of those people are between 18 and 44, while 24% are 17 or under. This is harder to write off as merely being an immigration effect, as the distribution skews too young to just be old people who aren't going to learn. We have no way of knowing what percentage of these individuals are immigrants themselves and how many native-born, nor can we tell how many of them actually have zero English fluency (the standard we've been using above). It's possible that the younger generations are learning, and will integrate eventually. Still, if the acquisition of English counts as any kind of proxy for integration, it's no benefit to the younger population to have minimal English exposure at precisely the times when it would have the maximum impact on their ability to integrate and succeed.
Addressing SC's review of Samuel Huntington's Who Are We? last year, Geoff Nunberg wrote:
In fact, English is too useful and important to imagine that any immigrant group would be willing to turn its back on it in order to maintain a marginal, ghettoized existence. Whether the acquisition of English will continue to bring with it a sense of belonging to a national culture depends entirely on the economic and social opportunities that assimilation offers to immigrants, and on our ability to refashion the idea of American citizenship to meet new challenges.
The numbers presented above suggest that he's not wrong -- certainly, as far as native-born individuals go, the pull of English is too strong. But when Korean immigrants go on record as saying "all that you need in California is Spanish", it's worth at least asking the question of whether or not turning one's back on English still actually is a choice to maintain a "marginal, ghettoized existence".