Talk of the nation isn't all English Many immigrants keep own tongue

April 28, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

A census report released today on languages spoken i American homes offers ammunition to both sides in the contentious debate over assimilation that has grown in the last decade as a result of increased immigration.

Those looking for signs that immigrants are becoming part of the mainstream can take heart in the fact that nearly 80 percent of those who speak another language say they speak English well.

Those concerned about the negative impact of immigrants can worry over the huge task schools and other institutions face in dealing with the remaining 20 percent.

According to the report, based on the 1990 census, 14 percent of the U.S. population -- and nearly a third of all Californians -- speak a language other than English at home. The national figure was up from 11 percent in 1980; the state increase was even more dramatic, up from 21 percent a decade earlier.

In the homes across the United States where another language was spoken, it was Spanish in half the cases; in California, the figure was two-thirds.

Next most common in the United States were French, German, Italian, Chinese and Tagalog, a language of the Philippines. In California, the next most common language was a collection of Chinese dialects.

The census figures covered Americans age 5 and older.

While the changes of the 1980s included an increase in the richness and variety of cultures and languages in California, the biggest negative impact is being felt in the schools.

According to Michael Kirst, co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, the number of pupils who cannot understand English well enough to function in a classroom is growing far faster than the state's ability to integrate them.

"The growth of these pupils is astounding. It is overwhelming the system," said Mr. Kirst, of the independent education research institute at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. "The limited-English [population] is roughly 20 percent the pupil base."

About a million California schoolchildren -- "one out of five -- cannot function in a regular English classroom. They do not follow what is being said. They cannot read the textbook," Mr. Kirst said.

About 22,000 specially trained teachers are needed, but only 8,000 are available to instruct the children whose English is insufficient, he said.

Nowhere in the country are the politics of language more intense than in California.

On one end of the spectrum are those who want schools to set up true bilingual programs, to help children preserve their ability to speak their families' languages, in addition to English. That ideal is unrealistically expensive, if nothing else, Mr. Kirst said.

On the other end of the spectrum are English-only advocates who say immigrants -- especially children -- can pick up English as they go, that schools need offer no instruction. That, too, is unrealistic but for another reason, Mr. Kirst said.

Some Americans whose parents and grandparents arrived earlier in the century wonder why, since their ancestors coped without help, new immigrants can't do the same.

But, Mr. Kirst said, "A lot of these people were not well educated, although they would not admit it. And a lot of them did not graduate from high school. Yes, they 'got by.' But I'm not sure their English was good, and they did not have high educational attainment. And -- there were a lot of jobs they could do without educational attainment."

The U.S. Census Bureau gleaned its data from the question: "Does this person speak a language other than English at home?"

Because the census had asked the language question that way only once before, researchers have trouble looking back to other waves of immigration for comparisons.

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