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English Language Proficiency & Language Spoken at Home

English language proficiency is a cornerstone of communication, business, and the economy. Data on English language proficiency equip us to better understand 'where we are' and help enable us to develop plans to identify problems areas and improve on English language proficiency. Much of the challenge, and opportunity, to make improvements lies within the realm of K-12 schools and school systems.

This section reviews data resources and tools for assessing the state of English language proficiency in the context of small area geography and schools, but yet on a national scale. This information can benefit individual school and neighborhood stakeholders as well as developing and managing national scope business and education operations.

Examining Linguistic Isolation by Block Group
• using ACS 2010 block group demographics
• interactive ranking table and GIS visual analysis
• See

Using Census and American Community Survey Data Resources
Census 2000 and earlier decennial censuses provide very limited data on English language proficiency. Census 2010 provides no data on language use. The annually updated American Community Survey (ACS) provides annually updated data on language use similar to Census 2000. Neither ACS nor decennial censuses provide any data on English language proficiency for those who speak only English. In addition, census data are respondent-based. Data about the ability to speak English are based on the view of the respondent.

Census 2000 and ACS summary data provide characteristics of four major language groups and 39 more detailed language groups. Respondent data are coded for 382 individual languages and language groups. The decennial census (2000 and earlier) and/or ACS Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) file enables analysis of a selection from or all 382 languages. Additional data resources are described later in this section.

Related section Language Use Patterns provides additional data about the population speaking a language other than English at home based the American Community Survey.

The document Assessing English Language Proficiency and School Performance Improvement shows how data described in this Web page can be integrated with school and school district performance data in an analytical context. See how the Texas School District Performance Analysis tools can be used to examine relationships between English language proficiency and school performance.

What We Know about English Language Proficiency
Older data in the sections below provide details that remain relevant. For updated data from the American Community Survey see

Data available from Census 2000 and ACS 5-year estimates provide a good starting place to assess the state of English language proficiency for smaller geographic levels across the U.S. Using Census 2000 Summary File 3 data makes it possible to analyze characteristics of language use and the ability to speak English by census block group and all higher geographic summary levels including ZIP code, census tract, community, county, and many other levels (see description about school district data).

As shown in the following table, persons 5 to 17 years of age in the U.S. with limited English proficiency increased from 2.00-percent to 2.49-percent between 1990 and 2000. Language diversity increased as the percent of this population who speak English only decreased from 86.06-percent in 1990 to 81.58-percent in 2000.

 1990 CensusCensus 2000Change, 1990-2000
Population 5-to-17 years of age 45,342,448 100.00% 53,096,003 100.00% 7,753,555 17.10%
  Speak only English 39,019,514 86.06% 43,316,237 81.58% 4,296,723 11.01%
  Speak other languages 6,322,934 13.95% 9,779,766 18.42% 3,456,832 54.67%
    Not well; not at all 907,563 2.00% 1,321,976 2.49% 414,413 45.66%

Decennial census data on language use and the ability to speak English are tabulated from the long form questionnaire. See the more detailed description for additional information. The following questions were asked in Census 2000 and the 1980 and 1990 censuses:

  • Does this person speak a language other than English at home?
  • What is this language?
  • (For those who speak another language) How well does this person speak English?
      --very well, well, not well, not at all.

The following table, based on data from Census 2000 Summary File 3, shows breakouts for 'how well' English is spoken at home for selected language categories.

 Population 5 Years and Over

United States

Total: 262,375,152

5 to 17 years:


Speak only English


Speak Spanish:


Speak English "very well"


Speak English "well"


Speak English "not well"


Speak English "not at all"


Speak other Indo-European languages:


Speak English "very well"


Speak English "well"


Speak English "not well"


Speak English "not at all"


Speak Asian and Pacific Island languages:


Speak English "very well"


Speak English "well"


Speak English "not well"


Speak English "not at all"


Speak other languages:


Speak English "very well"


Speak English "well"


Speak English "not well"


Speak English "not at all"


Data for School Systems
Proximity has developed a unique set of demographic data for school districts that provides access to these same English language proficiency data in the context of a broader set of socioeconomic data. These data are available interactively via Web access or on CD-ROM.

View an example of accessing these data for New York State school districts via this Web page: Perform a query/display Tables 1 through 4 and view the subject matter for which Proximity has developed school district demographics for school districts.

Assessing Trends -- Integrating Other Data
Updates to Census 2000 English language proficiency data and trend related data are difficult to acquire. More up-to-date data must come from other national statistical programs or developed from locally based data using models.

Three national statistical programs have the potential to provide trend data and updates to the Census 2000 data. These programs are:

  • National Assessment of Educational Progress
    National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education

  • Current Population Survey, October Supplement
    U.S. Bureau of the Census; Bureau of Labor Statistics
    National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education

  • American Community Survey
    U.S. Bureau of the Census

However, there are no data from these programs than can provide updates now nor in the near future. The first two programs provide data that are older and less reliable than the Census 2000 data.

School and School District Data: Using Models to Develop Updates
For individual schools and school districts, and in some cases state education systems, it is feasible to administer tests to students to determine English language proficiency. Developed correctly, this approach to data development might be the preferred way to develop updates and trend data.

In most cases, direct collection of student data is not feasible, beyond a school or school district, let alone a set of states or the nation. This leads to the alternative of using model based methods. Contact Proximity for information about model specifications that can be used to develop updated estimates of English language proficiency.

Language Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English Data from Census 2000 (scroll section)
Data on language spoken at home were derived from answers to long-form questionnaire Items 11a and 11b, which were asked of a sample of the population. Data were edited to include in tabulations only the population 5 years old and over. Questions 11a and 11b referred to languages spoken at home in an effort to measure the current use of languages other than English. People who knew languages other than English but did not use them at home or who only used them elsewhere were excluded. Most people who reported speaking a language other than English at home also speak English. The questions did not permit determination of the primary or dominant language of people who spoke both English and another language. (For more information, see discussion below on "Ability to Speak English.")

Instructions to enumerators and questionnaire assistance center staff stated that a respondent should mark "Yes" in Question 11a if the person sometimes or always spoke a language other than English at home. Also, respondents were instructed not to mark "Yes" if a language other than English was spoken only at school or work, or if speaking another language was limited to a few expressions or slang of the other language. For Question 11b, respondents were instructed to print the name of the non-English language spoken at home. If the person spoke more than one language other than English, the person was to report the language spoken more often or the language learned first.

For people who indicated that they spoke a language other than English at home in Question 11a, but failed to specify the name of the language in Question 11b, the language was assigned based on the language of other speakers in the household, on the language of a person of the same Spanish origin or detailed race group living in the same or a nearby area, or of a person of the same place of birth or ancestry. In all cases where a person was assigned a non-English language, it was assumed that the language was spoken at home. People for whom a language other than English was entered in Question 11b, and for whom Question 11a was blank were assumed to speak that other language at home.

The write-in responses listed in Question 11b (specific language spoken) were optically scanned or keyed onto computer files, then coded into more than 380 detailed language categories using an automated coding system. The automated procedure compared write-in responses reported by respondents with entries in a master code list, which initially contained approximately 2,000 language names, and added variants and misspellings found in the 1990 census. Each write-in response was given a numeric code that was associated with one of the detailed categories in the dictionary. If the respondent listed more than one non-English language, only the first was coded.

The write-in responses represented the names people used for languages they speak. They may not match the names or categories used by linguists. The sets of categories used are sometimes geographic and sometimes linguistic. The following table provides an illustration of the content of the classification schemes used to present language data.

Languages Spoken at Home

Four-Group Classification Thirty-Nine Group Classification Examples
Spanish Spanish and Spanish creoles Spanish, Latino
Other Indo-European languages French French, Cajun, Patois
  French Creole Haitian Creole
  Portuguese and Portuguese creole  
  Other West Germanic languages Dutch, Pennsylvania Dutch, Afrikaans
  Scandinavian languages Danish, Norwegian, Swedish
  Serbo-Croatian Serbo-Croatian, Croatian, Serbian
  Other Slavic languages Czech, Slovak, Ukrainian
  Other Indic languages Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi, Romany
  Other Indo-European languages Albanian, Gaelic, Lithuanian, Rumanian
Asian and Pacific Island languages Chinese Cantonese, Formosan, Mandarin
  Mon-Khmer, Cambodian  
  Miao, Hmong  
  Other Asian languages Dravidian languages (Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil, Turkish
  Other Pacific Island languages Chamorro, Hawaiian, Ilocano, Indonesian, Samoan
All other languages Navajo  
  Other Native North American languages Apache, Cherokee, Choctaw, Dakota, Keres, Pima, Yupik
  African languages Amharic, Ibo, Twi, Yoruba, Bantu, Swahili, Somali
  Other and unspecified languages Syriac, Finnish, Other languages of the Americas, not reported

Concepts and Terms (scroll section)
Household language. In households where one or more people (5 years old and over) speak a language other than English, the household language assigned to all household members is the non-English language spoken by the first person with a non-English language in the following order: householder, spouse, parent, sibling, child, grandchild, in-laws, other relatives, stepchild, unmarried partner, housemate or roommate, and other nonrelatives. Thus, a person who speaks only English may have a non-English household language assigned to him/her in tabulations of individuals by household language.

Language density. Language density is a household measure of the number of household members who speak a language other than English at home in three categories: none, some, and all speak another language.

Limitation of the data. Some people who speak a language other than English at home may have first learned that language at school. However, these people would be expected to indicate that they spoke English "Very well." People who speak a language other than English, but do not do so at home, should have been reported as not speaking a language other than English at home.

The extreme detail in which language names were coded may give a false impression of the linguistic precision of these data. The names used by speakers of a language to identify it may reflect ethnic, geographic, or political affiliations and do not necessarily respect linguistic distinctions. The categories shown in the tabulations were chosen on a number of criteria, such as information about the number of speakers of each language that might be expected in a sample of the U.S. population.

Comparability. Information on language has been collected in every census since 1890, except 1950. The comparability of data among censuses is limited by changes in question wording, by the subpopulations to whom the question was addressed, and by the detail that was published.

The same question on language was asked in 1980, 1990, and Census 2000. This question on the current language spoken at home replaced the questions asked in prior censuses on mother tongue; that is, the language other than English spoken in the person's home when he or she was a child; one's first language; or the language spoken before immigrating to the United States. The censuses of 1910-1940, 1960 and 1970 included questions on mother tongue.

A change in coding procedures from 1980 to 1990 improved accuracy of coding and may have affected the number of people reported in some of the 380 plus categories. In 1980, coding clerks supplied numeric codes for the written entries on each questionnaire using a 2,000 name reference list. In 1990, written entries were keyed, then transcribed to a computer file and matched to a computer dictionary that began with the 2,000 name list. The name list was expanded as unmatched entries were referred to headquarters specialists for resolution. In Census 2000, the written entries were transcribed by “optical character recognition” (OCR), or manually keyed when the computer could not read the entry. Then all language entries were copied to a separate computer file and matched to a master code list. The code list is the master file developed from all language unique entries on the 1990 census, and included over 55,000 entries. The computerized matching ensured that identical alphabetic entries received the same code. Unmatched entries were referred to headquarters specialists for coding. In 2000, entries were reported in about 350 of the 380 categories.

Ability to Speak English
Data on ability to speak English were derived from the answers to long-form questionnaire Item 11c, which was asked of a sample of the population. Respondents who reported that they spoke a language other than English in long-form questionnaire Item 11a were asked to indicate their ability to speak English in one of the following categories: "Very well," "Well," "Not well," or "Not at all."

The data on ability to speak English represent the person's own perception about his or her own ability or, because census questionnaires are usually completed by one household member, the responses may represent the perception of another household member. Respondents were not instructed on how to interpret the response categories in Question 11c.

People who reported that they spoke a language other than English at home, but whose ability to speak English was not reported, were assigned the English-language ability of a randomly selected person of the same age, Hispanic origin, nativity and year of entry, and language group.

Linguistic isolation. A household in which no person 14 years old and over speaks only English and no person 14 years old and over who speaks a language other than English speaks English "Very well" is classified as "linguistically isolated." In other words, a household in which all members 14 years old and over speak a non-English language and also speak English less than “Very well” (have difficulty with English) is “linguistically isolated.” All the members of a linguistically isolated household are tabulated as linguistically isolated, including members under 14 years old who may speak only English.

Comparability. The current question on ability to speak English was asked for the first time in 1980. From 1890 to 1910, “Able to speak English, yes/no” was asked along with two literacy questions. In tabulations from 1980, the categories "Very well" and “Well" were combined. Data from other surveys suggested a major difference between the category "Very well" and the remaining categories. In some tabulations showing ability to speak English, people who reported that they spoke English "Very well" are presented separately from people who reported their ability to speak English as less than "Very well."

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