How well should residents of the United States speak English?
That’s a tough question, one to which few social scientists have paid much attention. Probably because it’s widely understood that speaking fluently enough to communicate basic ideas — and understand spoken and written communications — is usually good enough in nearly all facets of life.
But that’s as close as we’ll get to a general agreement on what it means to speak “acceptable” English in this country.
The variations were evident back in 2005 when PBS aired “Do You Speak American?”:
“Not all Americans speak English, and those who do speak English do not all speak the same version,” the program’s viewer’s guide noted. “On the contrary, the English used in the United States differs from region to region, among ethnic and other social groups, and even by age and gender ... [and] many people shift from one version of English to another depending on the person they are speaking to and where they are.”
Given our high acceptance of a wide spectrum of what constitutes English, how should we judge U.S.-born citizens on their English ability?
If we handed out surveys and asked native English speakers to rate their fluency in terms of “very well,” “well” or “not well,” how would people answer?
We don’t know. But we do know how many native English-speakers feel about anyone else struggling with our crazy-quilt language: Our bar is quite high, with anything less than “very well” inspiring complaints about immigrants not “learning the language.”
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its report on the English-speaking ability of the foreign-born. The news played itself out much as you’d expect in a media landscape reflecting polarized views of immigration.
Two headlines tell the tale: “Less than half of immigrants speak English well: Census Bureau” and “Close to Half of New Immigrants Report High English-Speaking Ability, Census Bureau Reports.” I’m sure you can guess which came from a conservative-leaning publication and which from a Hispanic-focused one.