National Data | Linguistic Isolation Balkanizes America
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Figures Don't Lie (A Continuing Series):In my last column, I noted that the 2000 Census showed foreign language enclaves growing rapidly in the U.S. - to the point where there were now nearly six million native-born Americans over the age of five who could not speak English "very well."  

But wait! There's more bad news!

The Census has another measure of the failure of the assimilative mechanism: "linguistic isolation" (LI). Its definition of "linguistic isolation:" households in which no adult speaks only English; and no adult speaks English "very well."

The Census Bureau counts all the members of such households as linguistically isolated. (This includes members under 14 years of age, although some may speak English.)

In 2000, 11.9 million U.S. residents were linguistically isolated (LI). That's up from 7.7 million in 1990, an increase of more than half (53.6%).

Other key points from the 2000 Census:


  • The proportion of the U.S. population classified as LI rose from 3.4% in 1990 to 4.5% in 2000


  • California was the most LI intensive state, with 11.1% (!) of its population so classified in 2000


  • Texas (7.8%) was second-most LI intensive; West Virginia (0.2%) was the least


  • Census 2000 showed that the LI problem is spreading geographically beyond six high immigrant magnet states of  California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey. LI population more than doubled (up 104%)  between 1990 and 2000 in the 44 states not considered high immigration magnets


  • Some hinterland states experienced even faster LI population growth rates, e.g., Nebraska (269%); Georgia (376%); North Carolina (548%); Iowa (145%)


  • Nearly one-third (31.2%) of the LI population now lives in the non-high immigration states, up from 23.5% in 1990


  • Among U.S. residents speaking an Asian or Pacific Islander language, linguistic isolation remains very high–31% in 1990 and 30% in 2000. Pockets of Asian and Pacific Islander LI households grew in such places as Kentucky (up 10%) and South Carolina (up 8%).


Spanish speakers now form the largest single LI community in the United States - comprising about 60% of the total.

Spanish-language immigrants are slower at acquiring English and the intergenerational shift towards English proficiency is less intense among the Spanish-speaking population. Apparently, the sheer size of the Spanish-speaking community, with its Spanish-language institutions and media obviates the need for English proficiency.

(Immigration enthusiasts always assume that mass communications must spread English, but foreign language programming and satellite feeds from the old country may also be promoting foreign language retention for all groups–for example, Asians.)

Also important in Spanish retention: Lower levels of schooling, bilingual education, and a greater tendency for Mexican immigrants to view their stay in the U.S. as temporary or to be combined with frequent return migrations to Mexico.

Immigrants who are not proficient in English pay a price: they earn 17% less than immigrants of similar backgrounds, experience, and education who are proficient in English. (Source: Chiswick, B.R. and Miller, P.W., "Language in the Immigrant Labor Market," in Immigration, Language, and Ethnicity: Canada and the United States, Washington D.C., American Enterprise Institute, 1992.)  And American society pays a price: Linguistic isolation is often associated with poverty, poor health, depression, and–most obviously–alienation from the mainstream American culture.

If current immigration policy continues, the U.S. in the coming decades will be increasingly characterized by both linguistic concentration, with LI Spanish speakers accounting for ever larger shares of the U.S. population, and linguistic diversity, with an increasing number of non-Spanish language enclaves scattered throughout the nation.

The Greeks had a word for this: Balkanization.

Persons in Linguistically Isolated Households

(Population 5 Years Old and Over, in millions)

  1990 2000 % Increase
United States 7,741,259 11,893,572 53.6%
California 2,680,665 3,472,270 29.5%
Texas 988,458 1,503,924 52.1%
New York 1,006,857 1,226,406 21.8%
Florida 547,169 892,295 63.1%
Illinois 370,081 603,221 63.0%
New Jersey 329,111 479,959 45.8%
Arizona 143,397 309,761 116.0%
Massachusetts 199,367 263,971 32.4%
Washington 89,268 206,283 131.1%
Pennsylvania 141,473 191,233 35.2%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau,

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.

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