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Linguistic Isolation Carries a Heavy Cost

New America Media, Commentary, Don Soifer Posted: Apr 10, 2009

Editor's Note: Living in linguistic isolation has been strongly linked with lower earnings for non-English speakers. One reason for that is those who live in linguistically isolated enclaves frequently have less information about jobs offered by employers who operate in the mainstream economy, writes NAM contributor Don Soifer.

Nobody knows for certain what made Jiverly Wong walk into a citizenship class for immigrants in Binghamton, N.Y. and open fire with two handguns, killing 13 people before taking his own life.

But his sister noted that he was very frustrated with his English-speaking skills after losing his job. A letter authorities believe he mailed to a local television station contained two pages of poor English. Police said he had dropped out of an English class at the immigration services center a month before.

The precise role his poor English skills played leading up to the tragedy may never be fully understood. But we do know that linguistic isolation is a growing and serious challenge in the United States, and one with implications reaching far beyond immigrant communities.

It is estimated that poor English skills cost the U.S. economy $65 billion in lost wages. Limited proficiency in English imposes a wage penalty that is most severe for Latinos. Economist Libertad Gonzalez projects these economic penalties can be anywhere from 4 percent to almost 40 percent of earnings for Spanish-speakers.

The reasons for this have a lot to do with growing patterns of linguistic isolation. According the U.S. Census bureau, there were 11.9 million Americans living in 4.4 million linguistically isolated households in the United States in 2000. This was an increase of over one-third from just 10 years before. A linguistically isolated household is one where all members 14 years old or older have difficulty with English.

Living in linguistic isolation has been strongly linked with lower earnings for non-English speakers. Among other reasons, those who live in linguistically isolated enclaves frequently have less information about jobs offered by employers who operate in the mainstream economy, which generally offer higher wages.

Contrary to what one might think, most English learners in the United States are not immigrants. In fact, fewer than one in four English learners in public elementary schools are foreign-born. Half were born here to immigrant parents, and one in four actually belong to the second generation in their family to be born in this country.

Spanish-speaking households comprised 68 percent of all linguistically isolated households in the United States. Chinese was a distant second, at 6 percent, followed by Vietnamese and Korean.

Children are more likely to live in linguistic isolation than adults. In California, this includes 13 percent of school-aged children, the highest rate in the nation. Linguistic isolation in the classroom can be even more harmful, because that is where our best chance to break this cycle resides.

One reason Latino English learners have a harder time is that they are more likely to be segregated in classrooms taught predominantly in Spanish (compared with other non-English native language groups). They are also more likely to share these classrooms with other non-English speakers exclusively. This is a problem because children can learn English in many ways besides just sitting at their desks listening to a teacher - they learn by being exposed to it in lunchrooms, playgrounds and even hallways. But linguistic isolation prevents this, and makes the problem worse.

English learners nationwide continue to demonstrate woeful results on standardized tests, especially as they reach eighth grade. This is not a reflection on these childrens ability to learn, but on our schools and the opportunities they provide. After all, children who begin school as English learners but who are able to acquire adequate skills to be re-designated proficient and moved into the educational mainstream are one of the highest-performing groups in all of American education.

In California, 74 percent of eighth grade English learners scored below basic on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress. English learners in Texas, New York and Illinois scored even lower. Students who perform at this lowest category of achievement in eighth grade are at extreme risk of dropping out during their high school years, and it is at that grade level where English learners often begin to disappear from school attendance rolls.

A majority of California tenth-grade English learners have been enrolled in U.S. schools since kindergarten or first grade. This underscores the urgency of the fact that the rates at which English learners successfully acquire adequate English language skills to become re-designated as proficient remain extremely low - below 10 percent in those states with the largest English learner populations, including California, Texas and Illinois.

This means the system expects it to take 10 years for most English learners to reach proficiency. This is simply much too long, a fact with serious implications for our economy far beyond communities of immigrants. Breaking the chain of linguistic isolation depends on fixing it.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, VA. His email address is soifer@lexingtoninstitute.org. He is the author of the just released report, "The Value of English Proficiency to the United State Economy," available at http://lexingtoninstitute.org/docs/845.pdf.

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