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Combatting Linguistic Inaccuracies in the Census

Last week, after years of urging, the Census Bureau released this statement:

In response to concerns expressed by data user groups, the Census Bureau decided to eliminate the term “linguistic isolation” for data products  issued starting in 2011.  We have changed the terminology to one that we  feel is more descriptive and less stigmatizing. The phrase that will  appear in all new products will be “Households in which no one 14 and over speaks English only or speaks a language other than English at home and Speaks English ‘Very Well.'”


Why is this an important victory? Here’s the background.

In the extensive media coverage of the 2010 US Census,  language has not been mentioned because it is not one of the ten questions on the new short form, but the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey includes these three questions:  (1) Do you speak a language other than English at home? If “Yes”, then (2) What is that language?, and (3) Do you speak English Very Well, Well, Not Well, Not at All?

Based on the data collected in 2009, it was estimated that 80% of the nation spoke only English at home, and that of the 20% who spoke another language at home, 55% also spoke English “Very Well” .  But these percentages obscure the true picture of English proficiency among those who speak another language at home –62% of whom are Spanish speakers– and the official reports of the data help promote linguistic intolerance and racial/ethnic violence by suggesting that newcomers are not learning English. A more accurate portrait would add those who speak English “Well” (20%)  to those who speak it “Very Well’ (55%), for a total of 75% (not including those who speak only English at home).  Among those who speak Spanish at home, adding the 18% who speak English “Well” to the 53% who speak it “Very Well” produces a total of 71% of proficient English speakers. Most damaging, however, is the Census Bureau’s classification of  “individuals and families” as “linguistically isolated” :

“if their household  is one in which no member 14 years old and over: (1) speaks only English; or (2) speaks a non-English language and speaks English “very well.” (Link broken, archived version, alternate link with same quote)

The Bureau began lumping together all those who spoke English “Well”, Not Well or Not at All” and labeling  them as “linguistically isolated” in 1990, just as Latino and Asian immigrants were changing the complexion of the immigrant flow in the US and a widespread movement to make English the only official language of the USA prompted an attempt to amend the Constitution (similar legislation is still pending); as of Nov 2010, 31 states have passed English-only laws.

Spearheaded by members of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology, several national organizations, including the American Anthropology Association, the American Association for Applied Linguistics, and the Conference on College Composition and Communication, as well as the Hispanic Advisory Committee to the US Census, passed resolutions against the use of “linguistically isolated because it is inaccurate and prejudicial, and foments linguistic intolerance. It is impossible to be “linguistically isolated” unless you live without human contact. Also, many children under 14 who often speak only English are unfairly labeled as “isolated”. Note that all those households where only English is spoken are not considered “linguistically isolated”.

We welcome the CB’s decision, and will continue to lobby for more changes that promote social justice regarding language.

Ana Celia Zentella (mail). Chair, Joint Committee for Human Rights and Society for Linguistic AnthropologyTask Force on Language and Social Justice

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  1. Pingback: Gota a gota, el mar se agota: The Census and Combatting Linguistic Intolerance | La Prensa San Diego

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