Overall Increasing Share of Non-English Speakers, with Some Questions Remaining

by Scott Richter and Dr. Patrick Jones

At the surface, some Trends seem like they tell more of a story than others. While this is likely true, diving below the surface provides insight into the implications, impacts, or consequences of each Trend on our community.

One in particular is Trend 0.2.5: The Share of Population Age 5+ Who Do Not Speak English at Home. As the title suggests, this Trend measures residents who speak a language other than English in their own homes, but also the strength of recent immigration, and perhaps more specifically, first-generation immigrants. 

This question has been asked on nearly every decennial Census since it first appeared in 1890. Why? According to the Census Bureau, “to know what languages to use, and where, to get information to people about public health, voting, and safety.”

From a Census report by Camille Ryan, it’s also because “there has long been an interest in these groups and in how well they are able to participate in civic life and interact with the English-speaking majority.”

For the public sector, this information is important to effectively communicate in languages used understood by residents, perhaps most importantly during emergencies, but also in less critical interactions with the government. Private sector benefits include the ability to launch effective marketing campaigns, to maximize the customer / employee interaction, and to build relationships crucial to the long-term success of nearly any business. 

Profits guide the private sector toward change: if a large swath of potential customers are being missed (due to language barriers or nearly any other reason), the business will adjust or likely go out of business. In the public sector, this trend can help us better understand potential options and decisions, and to be good stewards of public funds.

Perhaps where primary languages other than English and public sector funding converge most prominently is within the K-12 public education system.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, amended a few times since but still in effect, mandates “…children who are limited English proficient, including immigrant children and youth, attain English proficiency…”.  Affirming a lower court decision in 457 U.S. 202 (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “undocumented children and young adults have the same right to attend public primary and secondary schools as do U.S. citizens and permanent residents”.

The Supreme Court ruling removed any speculation as to the legal requirements of public school systems across the country, yet allowed each state to set its own policies regarding the curriculum for non-English speaking students. These included a very small number of states who have passed English-only education laws. Having come full circle, California is the only state to have passed and repealed English-only education laws.

In Washington State, law requires school employees to actively search for students deficient in English, known as English Language Learner (ELL) students. Next, ELL students must then be tested for eligibility into an alternative instructional program “designed to enable the student to achieve competency in English”. The alternative instruction program might, but doesn’t necessarily, teach using the primary language of the student. When a language other than English is used, it’s for the main purpose of helping ELL students achieve competency in English (when the language barrier has been removed) so they can attend regular classes.

Without knowing the share of the community who have a primary language other than English, or knowing what non-English languages are most predominate, schools would be likely less prepared to meet the demands, at least initially.  

So, where are we? Trend 0.2.5 looks like we missed an update since the state and U.S. benchmarks show data for 2018, while the two-counties are blank. Instead, this is a rare example when there weren’t enough respondents to produce reliable data, so the Census Bureau does not release it.

What we do know is Chelan County had a 1.8 percentage point drop from 2016 to 2017, which is mirrored in the 1.5-point drop in the Combined Counties.

Data is available for Douglas County in 2018. It shows a 1.6-point increase from 2017, ending at 29.1% of the total population. From 2016 to 2017, Douglas County also had a decrease too, 0.7-points, slightly lower than the Chelan County decrease of 1.8 points.

Using both spatial (geographical) and temporal (over time) comparisons, we get a much broader view of this Trend. The estimated share of non-English speakers from 2010 (or 2014) to 2017 for our two-counties, and some of our close neighbors:

  • Chelan & Douglas Counties combined was 23.0%, increasing to 25.1%.
    • Individually, Chelan: 21.6% increasing to 23.9%, and Douglas: 25.7% decreasing to 27.5%.
  • Benton & Franklin Counties combined was 26.7%, increasing to 29.9%.
    • Individually, Benton: 21.5% increasing to 21.6%, and Franklin: 49.7% (during 2014), decreasing to 48.0%.
  • Grant County was 36.2% (in 2014), increasing to 36.5%.
  • Yakima County was 40.0%, decreasing to 39.4%.

In short, Chelan and Douglas Counties combined began this series in 2010 with the lowest share among those offered above, and remained the lowest through 2017. 

So, we’ll have to wait and see what happens in 2019 – will all locations have data released, or while rare in our two-counties to occur, will the Census Bureau need to suppress any of it again?