CHICAGO — How well should residents of the United States speak English?
That’s a tough question, one to which few social scientists have paid much attention. Probably because it’s widely understood that speaking fluently enough to communicate basic ideas — and understand spoken and written communications — is usually good enough in nearly all facets of life.
But that’s as close as we’ll get to a general agreement on what it means to speak “acceptable” English in this country.
The variations were evident back in 2005 when PBS aired “Do You Speak American?”:
“Not all Americans speak English, and those who do speak English do not all speak the same version,” the program’s viewer’s guide noted. “On the contrary, the English used in the United States differs from region to region, among ethnic and other social groups, and even by age and gender ... [and] many people shift from one version of English to another depending on the person they are speaking to and where they are.”
Given our high acceptance of a wide spectrum of what constitutes English, how should we judge U.S.-born citizens on their English ability?
If we handed out surveys and asked native English speakers to rate their fluency in terms of “very well,” “well” or “not well,” how would people answer?
We don’t know. But we do know how many native English-speakers feel about anyone else struggling with our crazy-quilt language: Our bar is quite high, with anything less than “very well” inspiring complaints about immigrants not “learning the language.”
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its report on the English-speaking ability of the foreign-born. The news played itself out much as you’d expect in a media landscape reflecting polarized views of immigration.
Two headlines tell the tale: “Less than half of immigrants speak English well: Census Bureau” and “Close to Half of New Immigrants Report High English-Speaking Ability, Census Bureau Reports.” I’m sure you can guess which came from a conservative-leaning publication and which from a Hispanic-focused one.
The Census Bureau said that in 2012, 44 percent of the foreign-born population age 5 and older who arrived in the United States in 2000 or later reported high English-language speaking ability.
However, look at the total foreign-born population and a full 71.1 percent — about 29 million people age 5 and over — reported speaking English “well” with a little over 15 percent reporting speaking only English at home. The rest, about 12 million people, said they spoke speak English “not well” or “not at all.”
To put this in perspective, according to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) in 2003, 14 percent of adult Americans — about 30 million people 16 and over — demonstrated a “below basic” level of the literacy needed to read news stories, brochures and instructional materials. This figure, according to NAAL, did not include adults who could not be interviewed due to language spoken or cognitive or mental disabilities.
Obviously, my comparison is flawed, but it serves only to illustrate that language ability is a tricky business. And our understanding of who can manage English adequately and what is “good enough” is eventually going to need reckoning.
Let’s face it, the current immigration standstill isn’t going to last forever. We’ll either keep the de facto amnesty we have now or deal with immigration reform through the legislative process.
In any event, there will remain a lot of unhappy U.S. citizens with an ax to grind and they’ll do so on the most outward and inflammatory aspect of the immigration issue: English-speaking ability.
When that time comes, it will be useful to remember that language in America is hard to define.
We live in a country where the Senate has already passed an immigration reform bill that would look kindly on citizenship applicants who demonstrate a “proficiency” in English, but doesn’t define it in any meaningful way.
This is the same country that not only struggles with inculcating reading and writing proficiency into its native-borns, but can’t even agree on the content — much less the value — of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy.
But never forget: It’s also the country with a near-perfect track record of making English most residents’ preferred language. That won’t ever change.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.