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Hispanic Immigration and Spanish Maintenance as Indirect Measures of Ethnicity: Reality and Perceptions
Ethnic Studies Review (1997)
  • Shaw N. Gynan, Western Washington University

In 1990, of the 230,445,777 persons in the U.S. who were age five or over, 31,844,979 spoke a language other than English at home (see Table 2). Of these, 13,982,502, or approximately 6% of the U.S. population reported not speaking English at the level `very well.' The census bureau reports that over 75% of nonnative English speakers claim to speak English at least "well."(11) This means that of the 32 million non-native speakers of English slightly fewer than eight million or 3.5% reported speaking English less than "well." Even someone who reports that his or her English is only "fair" hardly can be considered to be a non-English-speaker, so this method of determining acceptable English proficiency is conservative. Nonetheless, even using this conservative estimate, 96.5% of the country speaks English "well" or "very well."

Bills, [Eduardo Hern]ández-Chávez, and Hudson identify two useful measures of language maintenance and shift by Hispanics. They include "loyalty," the proportion of a group that is Spanish speaking, and "retention," the ratio of youth loyalty to adult loyalty. Data on loyalty and retention based on U.S. census data are presented in Table 5. These measures can be used to present a more accurate picture of maintenance of Spanish in the U.S. A glance at Table 5 will reveal that among young and old Hispanics alike, the vast majority report using Spanish. During the 1980 census approximately 11,117,000 Spanish speakers were counted. This figure was later revised upward to 11,549,000. Of these individuals a total of 2,952,000 aged 5-17 spoke Spanish. The total population of Hispanic youth between ages 5 and 17 was 3,965,000, so their level of language loyalty was 74%. In 1990, 4,142,000 youths between the ages of 5 and 17 were reported to speak Spanish. Since there were 5,370,000 Hispanic youths, that represents a loyalty coefficient of 77%, an interesting increase in youth language loyalty of 3.6% but hardly the massive shift fears expressed repeatedly in U.S. ENGLISH Update.(15)

It is now all too easy to confuse two very different statements about language ability. U.S. citizens in 1990 were asked to locate their language ability along a dimension ranging from "very poor" to "very well." The 38% of Hispanics who did not choose the category `very well' did not necessarily rate themselves as "very poor," "poor" or even "fair" (refer again to Table 2). In fact, as noted above, according to Barringer the Bureau of the Census reports that when the category "well" is added, the number of English speakers among non-native Americans jumps to 75%. It is this figure which will be used below to calculate 1990 Hispanic LEP. The problems of comparability notwithstanding, a reasonable procedure can be formulated to determine in a future study the extent to which Hispanics and others who have been in the U.S. for a decade or more continue to be limited in English proficiency (LEP).

  • Bilingual education
Publication Date
April 30, 1997
Publisher Statement
Copyright National Association for Ethnic Studies Apr 30, 1997
Citation Information
Shaw N. Gynan. "Hispanic Immigration and Spanish Maintenance as Indirect Measures of Ethnicity: Reality and Perceptions" Ethnic Studies Review Vol. 20 (1997)
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