English Proficiency in the US

“Everyone that lives in the US should learn English or get kicked out!”

Have you ever heard someone say that, or have you maybe even said it yourself? There are many people that are residing in the US that self-report not speaking English well.

9% of the population in fact. 

The Migration Policy Institute just released a new study that determined that 9% of the population of the US is not proficient in English. It was at 6% in 1990.

9% of the US population is about 25.3 million people, which puts it into perspective a bit more.

63% of these LEP (limited English proficient) are Latino, and 20% are Asian. 13% are non-Latino white, and 3% are black.

About half of these LEPs live in California, Texas, and New York, which have always had large numbers of immigrants. In fact, 1 in 5 people in California have limited proficiency in English, which puts California at having 27% of the LEP population. And, of course, larger cities have larger populations of non-proficient speakers. Cities such as DC, Miami, and Chicago have large populations of LEPs.

Limited English Proficient Population

limited English proficiency states

While many LEPs are foreign born, about 19% were actually born in the US.  That leaves 81% that are foreign born.

Separately, there are an additional 2.8 million LEPs in Puerto Rico, which is part of the US.  (When I visited Puerto Rico, I was surprised that hardly anyone spoke English fluently since I had read that both English and Spanish are the official languages there.)

Does not being able to speak English while living in America hurt LEPs? This study does show that they are more likely to be living in poverty or be doing menial jobs. Many LEPs work in construction, transportation, or the service industry. They are less likely to hold college degrees. Is it difficult to live their day-to-day lives? I am sure it is. Many LEPs have children that are proficient in English from going to school, and their children must help them do simple tasks, like pay bills. It is taxing on the parents and the children.

However, not everyone has the time or the opportunity to learn English. If you’re working 60 hours a week, it’s very difficult to squeeze in time to learn English. Additionally, many people don’t know how to go about learning. Some don’t realize there are many free classes to help them learn English. And another major reason is that learning English can be intimidating. It’s hard to admit that you don’t know the language, and then go to a class and feel like a toddler while learning the basics. (I can relate to that while living in China and trying to learn Chinese!)

This study goes to show that there is a definite need for qualified ESL teachers. There is also a need for volunteers to teach English. There are so many organizations with which one can volunteer to do this. They will give you basic training, but the teaching will be simple, and any native English speaker would be able to do this easily. One example is Pro-Literacy America.

So instead of getting angry when people can’t speak English,  think about what you can do to help. Also, be considerate of their circumstances. It may very well be their first day in the US, or they may be taking classes but their ability level is still not very good yet.  Put yourself in their shoes, and be considerate of their feelings and situation.

I hate when people say that everyone in the US should know English, “because English is the official language goshdarnit!”  If you’d do your research you’d know that the US does not actually have an official language. So, chew on that little tidbit for a while.

I hope this post was informative. I got my information (and the images) from this website. So check it out if you’d like to read more if you’re a language/English/teaching nerd like me.   :]  And please help me out and  share on your social media (Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc.) if you enjoyed this post.


7 thoughts on “English Proficiency in the US

  1. Ditto on the Puerto Rican experience. My limited Spanish was maxed out while hitch hiking across that cultural outpost of Mexico.

  2. This is an awesome article and I really enjoyed reading it. I think it is really important for us to be aware of the language needs of people that are in our country but also to understand the situation that they are in. You provided several really interesting points about why people don’t learn English, and as an aspiring speech therapist I appreciate that. Teaching ESL is very rewarding, and you usually end up learning just as much as your students, if not more!

    • Thanks so much for reading Megan! I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it. I do think that people need to be more understanding of language learners. And you’re right; I do gain so much from teaching ESL! Are you in school now for speech therapy?

  3. Usually people say “Everyone that lives in the US should learn English or get kicked out!” are the ones who still speak English in another country. I had a British friend who bragged that it’s so easy to travel with just English. If you know the history behind it, you shouldn’t be proud of that.

    On the flip side, my husband was told by another on a Subway in New York City that he SHOULD be speaking Spanish. Everybody should be speaking Spanish. My husband says, “How would you feel if people go to your country and tell you to speak English. Everybody should speak English.” The guy said, “I wouldn’t like that.” My husband, “Exactly,” and he got off. This conversation happened a lot with him. My husband is Taiwanese.

    I only know Basic Mandarin in speaking but I can write even better. It’s not so much that I am not open to learning a new language. It’s just that, well, here’s the thing: Somebody said to everybody, “The most rewarding in learning a new language is that you can communicate with MORE people!”
    Me, “Not to introverts.”

  4. That is a very strange experience that your husband had! But, I have heard that when a non-Spanish speaker goes to Miami, the very same thing may happen. So are you American, Eileen? Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

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