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Census Report Reveals Language Trends In Northwest Homes

US Census Bureau. This map shows the distribution of Spanish-speaking households in 2011.

New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show the Northwest has fewer people who speak a foreign language at home than the country as a whole. But the highest concentrations of foreign speaking households in the region are not where you might expect.

As you might guess, language trends are closely tied to immigration. So certain languages, like Norwegian, are declining in American homes. Others, like Russian, are being spoken more. Overall, the proportion of the American population that speaks a language besides English at home is rising, according to the new report.

Census Bureau statistician Camille Ryan says the language survey is required by the Voting Rights Act, but it's important to local governments for other reasons too. “When it comes to providing emergency services, when it comes to schools and libraries, it's a very important of data that needs to be collected for people within our communities.”

At Garry Middle School in Spokane, translator Angelica Riel helps the Martinez family register their twins for the fall. They just immigrated from Cuba.

In terms of sheer numbers, of course, the biggest language in the U.S. besides English is Spanish. The number of people who speak Spanish at home has tripled since 1980.

Now you might think the growth in foreign language speakers would be concentrated in metropolitan areas like Portland, Seattle and Boise. But no. Certain rural places, including Hood River County, Ore., Chelan County, Wash., and Cassia County, Idaho, more likely to have foreign language speaking households than many urban areas.

And Ryan says the data tell another surprising story: Even though more people are speaking foreign languages at home, there hasn't been much change in English proficiency. “The fact that those who spoke English less than 'very well' has not changed – I would say actually that was one of the most interesting findings that we found in this particular report.”

And in the case of Spanish speakers, the percentage who have trouble with English has dropped since 2005.

Among the fastest growing languages, Arabic speakers have some of the highest English language proficiency.

Here are some specifics about the Northwest from the report: Oregon has a higher than normal rate of people who don't speak English at all. While Idaho's rate of foreign language speakers who are also very good in English is above the national average. Washington is about on par with the country as a whole.

And then there’s this: Not all of the languages the Census Bureau tracks are foreign. Out of the 300-plus languages that Americans speak at home … 134 are native to North America.

On the Web:

Language Use in the United States, 2011 - U.S. Census Bureau 
Language Mapper - U.S. Census Bureau