Bilingualism in Texas
By: Dr. M. Ray Perryman
Published in syndication October 19, 2016
Texas' population growth over the past half-century has been nothing short of astonishing. Individuals from all over the world now call Texas home, bringing their culture with them. The state has also seen significant population growth among minority populations. Texas has become a "majority-minority" state and now ranks as the fourth most diverse state in the US, behind only Hawaii, California, and New Mexico. Perhaps nowhere is this diversity as readily apparent as in the languages that Texans speak.
According to the US Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) from 2015, about 35.4% of the Texas population (over nine million people) speaks a language other than English at home. The vast majority (83.3%) of those individuals speak Spanish; overall, about 29.5% of Texans speak Spanish at home. Other major languages spoken at home by Texans include Vietnamese (approximately 206,000 speakers), Chinese (172,000), Tagalog (84,000), Arabic (82,000), Urdu (82,000), Hindi (80,000), and French (72,000). In total, more than 160 different languages are represented in the state according to the latest US Census data.
Speaking a language other than English at home certainly does not necessarily imply a lack of English skills. Out of the nine million Texans who speak a foreign language at home (an indicator of their native language), 5.4 million (specifically 59.7%) can be considered bilingual, as they reported that they also speak English "very well." However, it is difficult to collect complete data on language use, and that figure likely does not fully represent the number of bilingual speakers in the state. For example, another 1.6 million indicated on the ACS that they speak English "well," bringing a possible estimate of functional bilingual speakers in the state to seven million, which accounts for 77.6% of Texans who speak a language other than English at home. This estimate also does not include those who speak multiple languages but use English in the home.
The bottom line is that of those who speak a language other than English at home, a substantial majority are bilingual (seven of the nine million). Only about 7.9% of the entire Texas population speaks English "not well" or "not at all" (about two million people) and most of these individuals (85.9%) are foreign born. It is important to note, however, that 52.8% of foreign-born Texans speak English "very well" or "well."
Research has expounded on the numerous benefits of bilingualism. According to Rebecca Callahan, a researcher at the University of Texas in Austin, studies have shown that bilingual children have higher test scores, better problem-solving skills, sharper mental perceptions, and greater empathy. Also, recent research taking advantage of more detailed language-use data sets has shown that bilingual young adults are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. Bilingual young adults are also more likely to be hired for a job and retained during layoffs. Among children of immigrant families, young adults who are bilingual and literate in both the native language and the dominant language have higher status jobs and earn more than their peers who are no longer proficient in their native language. In the aggregate, this pattern leads to higher productivity and better economic performance for the state.
Having a large number of bilingual residents is also an economic asset given that Texas is a major player in the global economy. Texas has been the top exporting state in the nation for the past 14 years and exported $251 billion in goods last year. The presence of multiple languages in the state can be an opportunity to develop bilingual and biliterate adults in order to fully engage the global marketplace. Workers that are proficient in more than one language can help bridge the gaps between cultures in our state, nation, and around the world. As the Internet and global communications open new avenues into global trade, companies are increasingly relying on bilingual employees to communicate with clients. For example, global services trade equaled $4.7 trillion in 2013, an amount that has more than doubled over the past decade. Bilingual adults can especially impact global services trade since these jobs tend to require more communication with the client than with manufactured goods.
The state has a lot to gain from bilingualism if we can properly foster these skills in our youth. We need to continue to strengthen English skills in schools, but also look for ways to continue native/foreign language development for children, whether that is through bilingual education programs or greater resources and encouragement for parents to foster the acquisition of the language at home. Strengthening foreign language programs in public schools can also encourage English-speaking students to master a second language. There is an abundance of cultural richness that is lost in an English-only approach, but by encouraging bilingualism, we can better enable the next generation to cement Texas' place in the global economy.