Foreign Language Speakers Straining U.S. Schools



Nearly half the residents in America’s five largest cities speak a language other than English at home, and that’s adding strain to urban school districts.

In New York City and Houston, 49 percent of residents speak a language other than English; in Los Angeles it is 59 percent; in Chicago, 36 percent; and in Phoenix, 38 percent, according to 2017 Census data analyzed by the Center for Immigration Studies.

Nationwide, total foreign-language speakers at home reached a record 67 million — up nearly 35 million since 1990. In California, 44 percent of school-age (5-17) children speak a foreign language at home, as do roughly one-third in Texas, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Florida.

Bilingual and multilingual skills are a fine thing, but not at the expense of English proficiency. Academic performance of English Language Learner (ELL) students — the majority of whom are born in this country and are U.S. citizens – translates into “a truly alarming picture,” Education Week reports.

On National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exams, just 6 percent of ELL fourth-grade pupils were rated proficient. A mere 3 percent of eighth-grade ELL students were proficient.

Despite massive public expenditures, performance has not improved. Last year, NPR reported that in New York State, for example, the overall high school graduation rate of ELL students was just 37 percent, less than half the overall rate. Of those who do graduate, only 1.4 percent took college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT.

The biggest numerical growth of foreign speakers from 2010 to 2017 was in Spanish (up 4 million), but, increasingly, U.S. educators face a veritable Tower of Babel.

Of languages with more than 400,000 speakers in 2017, the largest percentage gains since 2010 were in Telugu (up 86 percent), Arabic (up 42 percent), Hindi (up 42 percent), Urdu (up 30 percent), Chinese (up 23 percent), Gujarati (up 22 percent) and Haitian (up 19 percent). Hindi, Telugu and Gujarati are spoken in India and Urdu is the national language of Pakistan.

A recent sampling of 27 high schools found 9,000 refugee/immigrant students speaking 170-plus languages.

While socioeconomic and health factors can also impact academic performance, there is no question that fluency in English is essential to success in the classroom and the workplace.

“A common language is part of the glue that holds the country together,” notes Steve Camarota, co-author of the CIS study. “But the level of immigration is so high that it may be causing the country to grow apart, weakening the idea that Americans are one people.”

About Author

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Bob Dane, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)'s Executive Director, has been with FAIR since 2006. His deep belief is that immigration is the most transformational determinant of where we are heading as a nation and that our policies must be reformed in the public interest. Over many years on thousands of radio, TV and print interviews, Bob has made the case that unless immigration is regulated and sensibly reduced, it will be difficult for America to reduce unemployment, increase wages, improve health care and education and heighten national security. Prior to joining FAIR, Bob spent twenty years in network radio, marketing and communications after an earlier career in policy and budgeting within the Reagan Administration. Bob has a degree from George Mason University in Public Administration and Management.

10 Comments

  1. avatar

    Urdu is an Indian language and has much more amount of native speakers compared to pakistan ‘s hilarious 7%

  2. avatar

    Simple solution: NO school that does not teach ALL classes in English only surrender all Federal funding. ALL of it.
    Long past time for making English the OFFICIAL and SOLE language in which business, private of public, is conducted.
    Simple problem, simple solution.

  3. avatar

    When Studied to become an American citizen in 1960 all the books & tests were in English. When you applied & was accepted to study some of the many requirements were to become an American citizen was to Read, write & speak the English language fluently. When all 2000 thousand of us passed & was sworn in in Seattle that year our oath of allegiance was in English. Why is it the American taxpayer has to pay for in most cases illegal foreign nationals or so called refugees interpreters in the schools Welfare etc.. I for one am sick of paying for free loaders

  4. avatar

    American citizens should never be asked to pay for illegal alien’s to have translators in our public schools. Hello! It’s illegal for them to be in the country, period!

  5. avatar

    They didn’t say it but I will as most of the foreign language is Spanish and yes they have taken over large areas of this country. We will soon be a third would country with the lowest I.Q. producing most of the kids.

  6. avatar

    Agreed, English ONLY rules.
    Speak other language/s at Home NOT in Public.
    Have kin from Norway & they speak Norwegian at home BUT English outside Home.
    Same for other cultures 2 in the US

    • avatar
      Concerned Citizen on

      I have lobbied for the last 40 YEARS that nothing be provided in any language EXCEPT ENGLISH! MY kids that belonged here, born to American parents, had to share textbooks and had teacher shortages while the Spanish speaking ILLEGALS got special books & teachers! NOTHING in this country should be in any language except ENGLISH! Learn it or get out!

  7. avatar

    In the past in our country after a period of high levels of immigration we lowered levels of immigration for a number of years to help reduce tensions and give new arrivals a couple of generations to assimilate and become Americanized. This is a big part of the reason our melting pot worked when most of human history suggests that it never would.

    We are now at a point as a country that if we continue full steam ahead with the highest levels of illegal/legal immigration in our history with people coming here from every corner of the globe, making assimilating millions of people more difficult, given in the past most immigration was from Europe, we may end up turning into Yugoslavia.

    Are we smart enough as a country today to pause, lower immigration levels for at least a couple of decades, at give our country a break to assimilate the largest number of immigrants our country has every taken in at one time? Or is it our destiny to end up breaking up into separate countries as all the groups that really don’t like each other very much in this country decide to go their separate ways?

    We certainly wouldn’t be the first empire to collapse into disparate parts.

  8. avatar

    Back in the “old days,” classes were taught in English ONLY!! Kids had to learn our language as the school year progressed. Kids pick up things quickly from other kids. That helped them learn English. Would also help if their parents made the effort to learn it. Learn English or go back to where they come from should be the rules. We shouldn’t cater to hem & use interpreters.