Immigrants Say They Are English-Proficient; Tests Say Otherwise

(LifeZette) Many Hispanic immigrants who rate their English skills highly perform at low levels on English proficiency tests, according to a released Wednesday.

Immigrants Say They Are English-Proficient; Tests Say OtherwiseThe research, published by the Center for Immigration Studies, calls into question the argument that concerns over language gaps are overblown because new arrivals quickly pick up English.

“It really kind of overstates the level of assimilation to say, ‘Don’t worry; by the second generation, they will be literate,'” said Jason Richwine, an independent researcher who wrote the report for the Washington think tank.

The conventional wisdom on immigrants’ language skills come from the results of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. In 2015, the survey indicated that 73.6 percent of all immigrants — and 57.6 of Hispanic immigrants — speak only English at home or claim to speak English “very well” or “well.” Among Hispanics born in the United States, that share is 91 percent.

“That particular statistic has been cited very often by people who are in favor of expanding immigration,” he said.


To assess those claims, Richwine turned to the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, a batter of tests administered randomly to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. That included 8,000 people in America between the ages of 16 and 74 from 2012 though 2014. It asked test-takers the same self-assessment question asked by the Census Bureau.

Of immigrants claiming to speak English well or very well, 28 percent scored “below basic,” on the PIAAC literacy test — twice the rate of native-born Americans who say they speak English well or very well. Among Hispanic immigrants in that category, 44 percent scored below basic, a level that Richwine said equates to functional illiteracy.

Hispanic immigrants who rated themselves as good English speakers also were far less likely to achieve “elite” scores on the PIAAC testing. Just 2 percent of Hispanic immigrants who believe they speak English well or very well-earned the highest scores on the test. That compares with 12 percent of non-Hispanic immigrants and 14 percent of natives.

Analyzed a different way, the average Hispanic immigrant who rated himself as a good or very good English speaker scored in the 18th percentile on the test, meaning that 82 percent of all test-takers did better. The average non-Hispanic immigrant in that category scored in the 43rd percentile.

Richwine said non-Hispanic immigrants likely perform better on the literacy test because they tend to come to the United States with better language skills than their Spanish-speaking counterparts. Lots of research has indicated that immigrants from Mexico and Central America are more likely to be high school dropouts and less likely to speak English. They also are more likely to be illiterate in their native language.

So why do Hispanic immigrants tend to overstate their English competence? Richwine said he believes the answer rests with the large number of Spanish-speaking immigrants in America. It is by far the dominant language other than English. As a result, he said, it is easier for immigrants to get through life without learning English well.

This is particularly true in areas with large Spanish-speaking enclaves. Signs are in Spanish. Businesses cater specifically to Spanish speakers. Many Hispanic immigrants find jobs that do not require high-level English and are likely to have Spanish-speaking co-workers who can help them.

Richwine said the typical Hispanic immigrant living in one of those enclaves may speak English better than many of his friends and neighbors and, therefore, believe he speaks the language well, even it his proficiency is only mediocre.

“My suspicion is that a lot of it has to do with context,” he said.

More troubling, Richwine said, is that the English language gap does not disappear even after many years — or the next generation.

Among Hispanic immigrants who have lived in the United States more than 15 years, only 1 percent scored at the elite level on the PIAAC test, and 67 percent were in the lowest “below basic” category. By contrast, 12 percent of non-Hispanic immigrants who have been in America more than 15 years scored at the elite level, while only 22 percent were below basic.

More than 1 in 5 American-born Hispanics with at least one immigrant parent scored below basic, double the rate for second-generation non-Hispanics. Non-Hispanic Americans with at least one immigrant parent were also more likely to be elite — 22 percent, compared with 5 percent of second-generation Hispanics.

The children of non-Hispanic immigrants, in fact, scored better on average than natives. They achieved scores, on average in the 60th percentile of all test-takers. Second-generation Hispanics, meanwhile, were in the 34th percentile.

Richwine said the results are important because the ability to speak and read English well is key to getting high-paying jobs in the United States and avoiding reliance on government assistance programs. But he said it also is important to the health of democracy.

“The ability to speak English completely fluently is essential for a sense of civic fluency, as well,” he said.

Richwine pointed to watching a presidential debate as an example.

“You should be able to understand that completely,” he said.

Republished with permission from LifeZette via iCopyright license.