California: 43% in state speak other than English at home

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Sep 23 15:13:44 UTC 2008

43% in state speak other than English at home

Tyche Hendricks, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

(09-22) 19:50 PDT -- San Francisco resident Carlos Dimaano, 50, a
recent immigrant from the Philippines, speaks English in his job at a
community center. But when he goes home to cook dinner for his
88-year-old father, the two lapse into their native Tagalog. The men
are among the almost 43 percent of Californians who speak a language
other than English at home, a proportion far higher than in any other
state in the country, according to census figures released today.
Speaking another language at home doesn't mean they don't also speak
English in the home. But Dimaano, who immigrated just a year ago, is
also among the 1 in 5 Californians who feel they don't speak English
"very well."

By contrast, fewer than 20 percent of U.S. residents overall speak
another language at home, and fewer than 9 percent classify themselves
as limited English speakers, the Census Bureau said. The Bay Area,
with its large number of immigrants, has about the same proportion of
limited English speakers as the state overall, the census figures
show. For some experts, that is cause for concern. For others, it is a
source of regional strength.

"It's very disturbing when 1 in 5 people is not communicating in the
common language," said Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the
Hoover Institution. "Culturally, it creates a sort of tribalism. This
country doesn't have a predominant race or religion; it just has
values. That's a very thin bond. We have shared values and a shared
Constitution; we also have to have a shared culture and language."

When immigrants congregate in enclaves, they have a harder time
learning English and becoming fully American, said Hanson, author of
the book "Mexifornia: A State of Becoming."

"It's time to go back to the melting pot, control the borders and let
assimilation, integration and intermarriage work," he said.

It's not that immigrants don't want to integrate - it's that they need
more opportunities to learn English, said Jin Sook Lee, an assistant
professor of education at UC Santa Barbara, who remembers the
oversubscribed English-as-a-second-language classes she used to teach
at community college.

But she also doesn't believe California's diversity of languages is
something to fear.

"The fact that people speak a different language in their homes is one
of the most untapped resources in our country," Lee said. "With
globalization in economics and politics, we need language competence.
These speakers have a great potential to fill out this language gap in
our society."

More than most other parts of the country, California and the Bay Area
must tackle the challenges - and could reap the benefits - of
linguistic diversity, experts say.

"In California, we have a lot more recent immigrants. ... It's
dramatic," said Russell Rumberger, director of the University of
California Linguistic Minority Research Institute. "Our state is
totally dependent on immigrants. But that's not to say it doesn't
present challenges, teaching people English and integrating them into
the country."

Largest proportion

California has the largest proportion of immigrant residents in the
country, at 27 percent of the population, the census figures show. But
that lead is beginning to shrink as more immigrants settle in the
South and Midwest, said Michael Fix, co-director of the National
Center for Immigrant Integration Policy at the Migration Policy
Institute in Washington, D.C.

"In California, the direction is toward more settled immigrants and a
second generation and increasing language proficiency among the
foreign-born," Fix said. "The share of people who speak Spanish at
home who speak English as well has risen over time. So instead of the
worrisome story about (a lack of) cohesion, there's a positive story
here. ... The share of new immigrant arrivals in California is going
down, so that's giving a chance for immigrants to integrate."

California has long debated how to teach children who are English
learners. In 1998, the state's voters approved Proposition 227, which
mandated that English learners master the language through intensive,
short-term instruction - usually lasting a year - rather than taking
bilingual classes throughout their time in school.

Essential skill

Learning English is an essential skill for immigrants and their
children, both for their personal success and for the good of the
nation, said Tomás Jiménez, an Irvine Fellow at the New America
Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy think tank.

"To borrow a non-English phrase, English is the lingua franca of the
United States," said Jiménez, who also teaches sociology at Stanford
University. "There are folks on the right who want people to speak
only English, and there are folks on the left who think it's
unimportant. We shouldn't be stamping out people's languages, but
English should be additive. There are some legitimate concerns on both

Government could do more to make English classes available to adults
and help them integrate into society, Jiménez said. He pointed to
Santa Clara County's Office of Human Relations, which promotes
citizenship, English and leadership among immigrants, as a good

The Bay Area is unusual in California because it has immigrants from
so many Asian countries, as well as the Latin American immigrants who
tend to predominate in Southern California. Many of them are also
highly educated.

Dimaano credits the college education he got in the Philippines with
helping him grasp English more quickly. But he added that his father,
who studied only through the sixth grade, has done an even better job
mastering English.

"He's always reading books and magazines," Dimaano said. "He's better than me."

Lee pointed out that many of the Californians who don't speak English
well are, like Dimaano's father, elderly. And many of those who speak
another language at home are, like herself, also fluent in English.

"I speak Korean at home 100 percent of the time, and I do it because I
want my children to become bilingual," she said. "But they also speak
English perfectly."

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