43% in State Speak Other Than English at Home

Tyche Hendricks, San Francisco Chronicle, September 23, 2008

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.

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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. {snip}”

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,” [Hanson] 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. {snip}

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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.

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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 sides.”

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