English for work -- but not at home Immigrants stay with native tongue

April 28, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service Staff Writer James Bock contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- When they wake up in the morning and go home at night, Americans increasingly are speaking in Spanish, Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese, but not English.

The trend reflects the rise of immigration into the United States. Immigrants from Latin America, Asia and other regions are speaking in their native tongues at home -- most by choice, but some because they cannot speak English.

A new Census Bureau report shows that 1 in 7 U.S. residents, 14 percent, spoke a language other than English at home in 1990, up from 11 percent in 1980. In California, nearly 1 in 3 people, 32 percent, spoke a language other than English at home.

Spanish was spoken by more than half of the 31.8 million U.S. residents who didn't routinely converse in English. The next most common languages were French, German, Italian, Chinese and Taga log, a language of the Philippines.

In Maryland, 395,000 residents -- slightly more than 8 percent of the population -- spoke a foreign language at home in 1990, an increase of nearly 62 percent from a decade earlier.

As a wave of foreign-born immigrants flowed into Maryland during the 1980s, the number of persons who don't speak English well more than quadrupled to 148,000, including 47,000 in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

The No. 1 foreign language spoken at home in Maryland was Spanish, followed by French, German, Chinese and Korean.

Whether America is experiencing anything different from previous waves of immigration is unclear. Before 1980, the Census Bureau did not ask people what language they spoke at home, said bureau analyst Rosalind Bruno.

Demographer Jeffrey Passel of the Urban Institute in Washington, said he sees no evidence that recent immigrants from Latin America and Asia are any less inclined to learn and use English than were earlier immigrants from Europe.

"The majority of immigrants entering the United States do seem to speak English, and with more time and education in the United States, the others eventually learn it," said Mr. Passel. "People who speak English earn more than people who don't. That information is fairly well-known among immigrants."

Indeed, according to the census report, 79 percent of the people who spoke a language other than English at home said they could speak English "very well" or "well."

"I don't think there's any community that thinks we don't need to learn English," said Sonia Perez, a policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic organization. A 1992 poll, the Latino National Political Survey, found that more than 90 percent of Hispanics agreed that U.S. residents should learn English.

But Cessna Winslow, spokeswoman for U.S. English, a Washington-based advocacy group, questioned whether the government's use of multilingual election ballots, welfare applications and other forms sends signals to immigrants that it is not necessary to learn English. The group wants the federal government to conduct its official business in English only.

"We can be from any country. We can be of any color, but if we can't speak the same language, we can't communicate," said Ms. Winslow. "We need a common language. Our opponents say we're racist. We're not racist. We feel by denying or discouraging someone from learning the common tongue, you're denying them the opportunities to really enjoy America."

Unquestionably, the rise in immigration -- immigrants accounted for 37 percent of the country's growth in the 1980s -- has produced language-related strains, most notably in school districts struggling to teach children with little if any proficiency in English.

"It's just a tremendous impact on the educational system," said Jim Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. "The gaps are probably greater than ever before."

But Mr. Lyons and others say that the influx of immigrants also provides the United States with opportunities to develop a multilingual work force better able to compete in the global marketplace.

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