My last National Data debunked the notion that the U.S. lags other countries in prose, document, and quantitative literacy. Our mean composite score is, in fact, slightly above the average of other high-income countries. Now, with the latest literacy test results, we can examine recent literacy trends in the U.S. (Table 1.)
The news is decidedly mixed. The first survey of adult literacy in 13 years showed modest gains for whites and non-Hispanics.
The bad news: Hispanic literacy fell.
The really bad news: Newly-arrived Hispanics seem to be doing precipitously worse than their counterparts of 13 years ago.
From 1992 to 2003 average prose literacy scores for:
Forty-four percent of Hispanic adults had "Below Basic" prose literacy—a category that ranges from complete illiteracy to the ability to locate information in short simple texts. (Seven percent of whites are in that range.) In 1992, only 35 percent of adult Hispanics were in the Below Basic range. (Table 2.)
Adults who spoke only Spanish before starting school—primarily first-generation immigrants - suffered still sharper declines. Their average prose scores dropped from 205 in 1992 to 188 in 2003—an 8 percent decline.
Historically, English proficiency has been the key to economic and cultural assimilation for new immigrants.
If this is still true, we're in big trouble. The 2000 Census found 11.9 million U.S. residents lived in households in which English is either not spoken at all or not well—"Linguistically Isolated" [LI] in Census Bureau parlance. That's up from 7.7 million in 1990, an increase of more than half.
Spanish speakers are the largest single LI community in the United States—comprising about 60 percent of the total.
The sheer size of the Spanish-speaking community, with its Spanish-language institutions and media, obviates the need for English proficiency. Also important in Spanish retention: Lower levels of schooling, 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. A litany of government programs, including bilingual education, multilingual ballots and driver's license exams, publicly funded translators in courts, schools, and hospitals—also make it easy for Spanish speakers to avoid learning English.
Canada's dual language requirement costs that country an estimated $4 billion annually. Canada has only one-tenth the U.S. population and only two languages to accommodate.
But in the end, most of the economic costs of retaining their foreign language are borne by the immigrants themselves. Those among them 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.]
But American society pays the ultimate price: Linguistic isolation is often associated with poverty, poor health, depression, and–most obviously–alienation from the mainstream American culture.