Nearly half the residents in America’s five largest cities speak a language other than English at home, and that’s adding strain to urban school districts.
In New York City and Houston, 49 percent of residents speak a language other than English; in Los Angeles it is 59 percent; in Chicago, 36 percent; and in Phoenix, 38 percent, according to 2017 Census data analyzed by the Center for Immigration Studies.
Nationwide, total foreign-language speakers at home reached a record 67 million — up nearly 35 million since 1990. In California, 44 percent of school-age (5-17) children speak a foreign language at home, as do roughly one-third in Texas, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Florida.
Bilingual and multilingual skills are a fine thing, but not at the expense of English proficiency. Academic performance of English Language Learner (ELL) students — the majority of whom are born in this country and are U.S. citizens – translates into “a truly alarming picture,” Education Week reports.
On National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exams, just 6 percent of ELL fourth-grade pupils were rated proficient. A mere 3 percent of eighth-grade ELL students were proficient.
Despite massive public expenditures, performance has not improved. Last year, NPR reported that in New York State, for example, the overall high school graduation rate of ELL students was just 37 percent, less than half the overall rate. Of those who do graduate, only 1.4 percent took college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT.
The biggest numerical growth of foreign speakers from 2010 to 2017 was in Spanish (up 4 million), but, increasingly, U.S. educators face a veritable Tower of Babel.
Of languages with more than 400,000 speakers in 2017, the largest percentage gains since 2010 were in Telugu (up 86 percent), Arabic (up 42 percent), Hindi (up 42 percent), Urdu (up 30 percent), Chinese (up 23 percent), Gujarati (up 22 percent) and Haitian (up 19 percent). Hindi, Telugu and Gujarati are spoken in India and Urdu is the national language of Pakistan.
A recent sampling of 27 high schools found 9,000 refugee/immigrant students speaking 170-plus languages.
While socioeconomic and health factors can also impact academic performance, there is no question that fluency in English is essential to success in the classroom and the workplace.
“A common language is part of the glue that holds the country together,” notes Steve Camarota, co-author of the CIS study. “But the level of immigration is so high that it may be causing the country to grow apart, weakening the idea that Americans are one people.”