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"The Condition" of Language-Minority Children

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In the last quarter of a century, the number of school-age children in the United States who speak a language other than English at home—also called language-minority children—increased phenomenally, according to "The Condition of Education 2008," which the U.S. Department of Education released this morning. To be exact, the number of such students grew from 3.8 million to 10.8 million, or from 9 percent to 20 percent of school-age children, from 1979 to 2006.

I'm sure that's not a surprise to many of you. But skim the section of the report about language-minority students for some more nuanced information. For example, of those students who speak a language other than English at home, those who speak English with difficulty decreased from 34 percent in 1979 to 25 percent in 2006.

I interpret this data to mean that it's more likely that language-minority students have decent English skills now than they did a quarter of a century ago. My guess is that's because a growing proportion of English-language learners are born in the United States and have more exposure to English before they enter school than was previously the case. The report, by the way, doesn't include data on whether the students described in this section are U.S.-born or foreign-born.

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Some data work I did a few years ago also showed English ability improving from 1990 to 2000 among children speaking a language other than English at home. This was true even among children born outside the U.S. Some of this might have to do with changes in age at migration or changes in schools, but I interpret at least some of it as being due to the spread of English into Spanish-speaking countries, especially with family ties to U.S. residents being a large part of the migration picture.

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