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 children’s 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 He is the author of the just released report, "The Value of English Proficiency to the United State Economy," available at

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The Dark Twin of our American Dream

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User Comments

nativessayno on Apr 10, 2009 at 21:21:47 said:

In Los Angeles I see many with no interest or meaningful incentive in speaking English language at all.

LAUSD meetings have about 3/4 of the speakers using the aid of a translator. Ultimately, it show that not learning English is entirely optional. But if anyone remarks on this they are deemed a racist. I applaud the speaker's civic involvement...but why not take a steps further? Citizenship requirements are proficiency in English, no?

Does it ever occur to anyone that the non-English speaker or writer can not read signs or basic road notices etc?

When I was in grade school in the Bay Area there were no ESL classes whatsoever. I applaud and envy the multi-linguists out there. I resent the fact that my nominally proficient in Spanish which makes me a outsider in my own city roughly 40% of the time now.

Bravo, Eddie, really liked your comments. Seems like the collective view to be pc and ultra considerate has its drawbacks when carried to the present extremes. Obama has remarked that we all better learn Spanish. I appreciate him very much, but NOT on that particular viewpoint.

I have few opportunities to use my haltering Spanish since I encounter next to no interest in interfacing with English speaking non-Latinos; like myself.

eddie v garcia on Apr 10, 2009 at 16:14:45 said:

As a former kid who grew up in the tough streets of a northern suburb of Boston and who arrived in the middle of winter at three years of age and not knowing a word of English, I am appalled with the excuses and complacency that new immigrants and even those who have been here for years and years exercise when it comes to learning English. I am even more sickened with the federal, state and local governments eager to make it easier for new arrivals simply to court favors and votes "down the road."

I am proud to say that at the age of five, my parents and I became naturalized citizens of this great country. And to boot, we understood every single word that was recited in the federal district courthouse in Boston the day we were sworn in as US citizens.

My parents knew that in order to survive and make it in the new country "that we chose to come to" they needed to work because they didn't believe in a government handout unlike others and they knew that we ALL needed to learn this country's language. Yes, it was difficult for them as older people but they rolled up their sleeves each evening after coming home from working 10-14 hours in a textile mill and sat down with me to learn English.

Fortunately, I was able to learn English with the help of a black and white TV set (with rabbit ears) that they scraped money to buy at Woolworths and I learned English by watching Sesame Street, The Electric Company and Zoom, a popular young children's Boston area show.

So, please don't insult my parents, insult me or the previous generations of hardworking folks who came to this country for a better life and who knew, way even before setting foot in the US that (1) work was a necessity; (2) learning the culture and heritage of the US was a necessity; (3) learning and speaking English was a necessity. In no way did that mean we needed to forget our native language or our own culture. In fact, when Italians got together to have fun and yes, to eat, we spoke Italian. But we knew that when we needed to go to City Hall, to the hospital, to the police department or any other official business, that we either needed to speak English or bring a family member who spoke English and interpret for us.

As a guest in the United States seeking resident status down the road, we didn't expect or think it was "our" right to burden the country, its government, its public school system to make it "comfortable" or for the government to provide translators.

As a new American -or soon to be- we knew it was our obligation to assimilate, not the other way around.

I am sickened by the notion and by these groups who advocate for the "making it easy" for new arrivals. This is the United States of America! The best country in the world, it may have its issues and problems, but we are free to express ourselves and to reach whatever level of success we want provided "we" work hard, become an integral part of the country and its culture.

Regarding the public schools and this article's subject, I am a product of the Massachusetts public school system. I have asked my mother if when I attended school there were bilingual programs. Proudly and adamantly, my mother Dee said, "No way!." "You knew English before you started kindergarten and in fact often times your father took you to the bank to make sure he understood the banker's words."

In the same words that the staff attorney, Ms. Lopez used, "It is a crime when the schools, administrators and others continue to place LEP students in a bilingual classroom with very little or no use of English." I have seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears. These LEP students become way too comfortable in the setting of a bilingual classroom. That comfort level impedes their desire and ability to effectively learn English.

So, if you agree with the status quo, then just go about your business and see where our country heads, but please ad with all due respect, don't get up "then" to write your elected officials.

However, if you agree with me, please join me on my Blog to roll up your sleeves ( I have now resorted to a T shirt) in making English our official language. Enough is Enough! It has to start somewhere and making English our official language is the starting point.

Visit and

Thank you!

Eddie V Garcia




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