Public Policy/Advocacy

AAA Letter Suggests Alternatives to Census Bureau Label "Linguistically Isolated"

On May 27, AAA President Virginia Dominguez sent a letter to the Census Bureau suggesting alternatives to the label "linguistically isolated," which it uses to classify people who live in households where no one over the age of 14 speaks English "very well."

The letter (copied below) was written by the newly constituted SLA Committee on Language and Social Justice, which partners with the AAA Committee on Human Rights (CfHR). This is a follow up to the AAA's 2007 Resolution on Language Questions in the US Census and previous correspondence with the Census Bureau. Those letters reveal the unwillingness of the Census Bureau to change the language questions, but a willingness to re-consider their use of "Linguistically Isolated."  The Committee is hopeful that their efforts over the last four years will finally result in critical changes in the way the Census 2010 data are reported, and we will continue to press for changes in the language questions themselves.

May 27, 2010

David S. Johnson
Division Chief
Housing and Household Economic Statistics
U.S. Census Bureau
4600 Silver Hill Road
Washington, DC 20233

Dear Mr. Johnson,

Thank you for your reply to the letter in which the American Anthropological Association expressed concern over the language questions on the U.S. Census. Although we are disappointed to learn that you do not see the need to reevaluate the language questions, which we believe are incomplete and provide questionable data we are pleased that the Census Bureau acknowledges that the label, "linguistically isolated," suggests negative and inaccurate connotations concerning the linguistic abilities of those who speak languages other than English at home. We were especially pleased to learn from your letter, and also to hear from Director Groves whom one of our members met at the reception in his honor sponsored by the National Institute for Latino Policy, that you intend to review this terminology to see if a different term might be more appropriate.

We have taken time to carefully consider your invitation to suggest alternatives to using "linguistically isolated" as the classification for those who are in households where no one over the age of 14 selects "very well" from the four arbitrary categories. After consulting with our specialists in bilingualism, we suggest three alternatives for the classification of responses to the question, "Do you speak English very well, well, not well, or not at all?" if there is a need to distinguish sub-groups for the purpose of targeting funds and/or programs. The objective of all three alternatives is to do away with "Linguistically Isolated" as a classification.

Option 1 suggests a three-way classification. Those who report speaking English "very well" or "well" should be considered "Proficient Bi-(or Multi-)linguals." Those who self-report as speaking English "not well" should be considered "Emergent Bi-(or Multi-) linguals," or "Beginning English speakers." Those who report they do not speak English at all should be designated as "Speakers of languages other than English (LOTE)."

Option 1

Self Rating USCB Current Labels AAA Suggested Labels
Very well - Proficient Bi/Multi-lingual
Well Linguistically isolated Proficient Bi/Multi-lingual
Not Well Linguistically Isolated Emergent Bi/Multi-lingual or Beginning English Speaker
Not at All Linguistically Isolated LOTE

The advantage of Option 1 is that it recognizes that those who speak English "very well" and "well" are all proficient speakers of English, while the two other categories distinguish those who are beginning speakers of English from those who do not speak English yet.

Option 2 suggests a three-way alternative to classify those who speak English "very well" as "Fluent Bi-(or Multi-)lingual"; speakers who report speaking "well" as "Intermediate" or "Proficient English speakers," and those who report speaking "not well" or "not at all" as "Beginning English learners."

Option 2

Self Rating USCB Current Labels AAA Suggested Labels
Very well - Fluent Bi/Multi-lingual
Well Linguistically isolated Intermediate or Proficient Bi/Multi-lingual
Not Well Linguistically Isolated Beginnning English Learners
Not at All Linguistically Isolated Beginning English Learners

The advantage of Option 2 is that it joins the two groups that are in most need of programmatic support and distinguishes the two top levels of English speakers, allowing the public to appreciate the large number of speakers who fall into each of these categories.

Option 3 is a two-way classification that merges the two top groups, those who speak English "very well" and "well", as "Proficient" (or possibly simply "Bi/Multi-Lingual) and also groups "not well" and "not at all" together as "English language learners." This produces a two-way classification, as shown in the following chart:

Option 3

Self Rating USCB Current Labels AAA Suggested Labels
Very well - Proficient or Bi/Multi-lingual
Well Linguistically isolated Proficient or Bi/Multi-lingual
Not Well Linguistically Isolated English Language Learners
Not at All Linguistically Isolated English Language Learners

All of these options use non-stigmatizing, understandable terms that will help the public appreciate the efforts being made by newcomers to learn English. The Census data prove that most of those who speak a language other than English at home are Proficient Bilinguals and only less than three percent do not speak English at all. However, all four levels of speakers require financial and programmatic support in order to strengthen their reading and writing skills, an estimation of which is one of the questions missing in the Census. Legislators, educators, and all who are involved with or concerned about the linguistic needs of the nation's residents require this information in order to meet those needs adequately. Given the present focus on spoken language in the Census language questions, the classifications that we suggest identify those who are proficient in English, distinguishing them from those who are in the process of acquiring English and from the relatively few who are fluent in one or more other languages but not English. Schools and other institutions that serve English learners will be able to target specific programs to different groups of learners.

A final option would be to keep all four levels distinct and report the data without an interpretive label.

We believe that any of the changes we suggest would enable the USCB to produce results that are more accurately stated, more in keeping with contemporary scientific research, and more useful in guiding policy at national, state, and local levels. The essential point we wish to emphasize is that we find the label, "Linguistically Isolated" strongly objectionable, for reasons outlined in the resolution passed in January 2008 by the American Anthropological Association, which we attach again to this letter.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss the possibilities we have laid out here, and others, in a phone conversation, if you like. Thank you for considering these suggestions.

Sincerely,

Virginia R. Dominguez
President, American Anthropological Association

Cc: Angelo Falcon, National Institute for Latino Policy
Allan Mollohan, Chairman, House Subcommittee on Appropriations, Commerce, Justice and State
Barbara Milkulski, Chairman, Senate Subcommittee on Appropriations, Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies