A whopping 21 percent of U.S. residents now speak a language other than English at home, according to a report being released Tuesday by the Center for Immigration Studies that raises questions about the country’s ability to absorb the influx of immigrants.
Although many of those are bilingual, more than 25 million residents say they speak English at levels they would rate as less than “very well,” according to the report, which is based on the latest Census Bureau figures.
“The number of people who don’t speak English as their primary language has exploded, and it’s going to remain high for a long time,” said Steven A. Camarota, the lead demographer for the report. “That has implications for schools and politics. In some cases, the number of people speaking a foreign language is enormous now.”
Indeed, more than 39 million residents spoke Spanish at home last year — a jump of more than 11 million compared with 14 years earlier. Chinese was the second most prominent language at home, with 3.1 million residents speaking it — up from 2 million in 2000.
Just as startling is the growth of foreign languages among school-age children. In California, 43.9 percent of children eligible for primary or secondary school speak something other than English at home, Mr. Camarota concluded. In Texas, the figure is 36.2 percent, and in Nevada, it’s 32.9 percent.
The growth of languages other than English has been controversial for years. It has sparked a pro-English movement within the U.S. and a backlash that has defended immigrants’ rights to speak their mother tongues and demanded that services be provided for immigrants in their native languages.
The debate burst into the Republican presidential primary contest when businessman and front-runner Donald Trump criticized former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish in response to a question at a campaign event. Mr. Trump said speaking English was how the U.S. aided assimilation, but Mr. Bush said he would continue to speak Spanish whenever he thought it appropriate.
Academics predict that the current wave of immigrants will assimilate — and they and their children will learn English — at the same rates as before.
“The current research on language integration suggests that today’s immigrants and their descendants are strikingly similar to previous waves of immigrants, despite the differences in their countries of origin and the dominance of Spanish among current immigrants,” the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded in a report last month.
Mr. Camarota said the wave of immigration in the decades around the turn of the 19th century was followed by a long immigration timeout, which gave the country a chance to assimilate the newcomers. Without such an adjustment period to absorb the current wave, he said, the U.S. is in uncharted territory.
But the National Academies paper said the current wave has a high number of immigrants who come to the U.S. knowing English and Americans who are eagerly learning other languages, oftentimes in immersion programs in their schools.
Language has always been a proxy for assimilation, and immigrants who learn English or who push their children to adopt it generally do better economically and socially.
Mr. Camarota’s research showed a striking shift in the languages spoken in American homes today compared with less than two decades ago, or even just a few years ago.
Middle Eastern languages Arabic and Urdu have grown the fastest, with spikes of 29 percent and 23 percent, respectively, over the past four years. Hindi, Chinese and Hmong all posted growth of at least 10 percent.
But the prevalence of European languages is dissipating. The use of Hungarian, German, Italian and French languages have shown major drops.
Just 14 years ago, French was the third most prominent language spoken at home, with 1.6 million speakers, ranking behind Spanish and Chinese. But it now ranks fifth, behind Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog and Vietnamese, and only slightly ahead of Korean and Arabic.