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Language Minority Students


Reynaldo F. Macías

Reynaldo F. Macías


Some nations across the globe are becoming more linguistically diverse as a result of the transnational migration of peoples. Others are experiencing an increase in their language diversity as a result of differential growths of their populations, resurgence of language and ethnic nationalism, language revitalization movements, and the official recognition and promotion of multiple languages. Governments may be recognizing the needs of regional or immigrant populations within their borders, or they may be recognizing the fruits of foreign language programs in their nations. This increase in linguistic diversity is taking place at the same time that the estimated total number of different languages in the world is decreasing. While most nations have a multilingual history they recognize as part of their heritage, some view themselves as predominantly monolingual in a dominant language–the United States is one such country. Language diversity in the United States is not a new phenomenon, but language minorities begrudgingly receive recognition and continue to struggle for acceptance.

Who Are Language Minorities?

Around the world, defining language minorities often sparks controversy. What constitutes a language? How big must a group be to be identified and recognized? In the United States there are some generally accepted definitions and concepts for describing these populations. Within the national population, there are groups of individuals who may be called language minorities or non-English-language background populations. These individuals are people who speak a language other than English, whether or not they also speak English, and/or they may have grown up, or lived in, an environment where a non-English language was present and influential (whether they were born in the United States or any of its jurisdictions, or because they were born and raised in a different country). It also includes the deaf and hearing-impaired. Often, there is also an ethnic dimension to these groups where language helps define identity. They are referred to as "minorities" not only because they are not a numerical majority in the nation (although they may be at more local levels), but also because they often wield little influence or power within the country. American Indians may be considered language minorities even if they speak only English because their history includes a non-English language and repressive language and cultural policies by the U.S. federal government, so that their current use of English was affected by that history.

Very often there is a concern for a subgroup of the language minority population that does not speak, understand, read, or write the dominant language–English–well enough to participate effectively in an English-only classroom. This group has been referred to in many government documents and academic studies as persons who are non–English proficient or limited English proficient. Beginning in 2000, some states have changed their official definitions for language minority students who do not know enough English to participate effectively in an English-only classroom and have begun to refer to them as English language learners. There is some controversy over whether this new label is sufficiently descriptive to be adequate and whether it is distinctive enough, because all school students in the United States are required to learn and master English throughout their schooling, whether or not they knew English when they entered the schools, and thus are also English language learners.

The Size and Diversity of the Language Minority Population

In 2000 there were nearly 45 million people in the United States, about 17.6 percent of the national population (not including outlying jurisdictions such as Puerto Rico and Guam) over the age of five years, who spoke a language other than English at home. This was an increase of more than 14 million (41.1%) from the total in 1990. The largest single language spoken in the United States, after English, was Spanish, with about 26.8 million speakers (almost 60 percent of all persons who spoke a language other than English; see Table 1). The proportion of persons who spoke a language other than English who were approximately school-age (five to seventeen years of age) was just over one-fifth (21.7%) in 2000.

Three-fourths of the people who could speak a language other than English also reported that they could speak English very well or well, reflecting a high degree of bilingualism (see Table 2). This proportion varied slightly by language groups, with almost 72 percent of Spanish speakers, 86.8 percent of those who spoke another Indo-European language, 77.3 percent of those who spoke an Asian or Pacific Islander language, and 90.2 percent of those who spoke other non-English languages being able to speak English very well or well.

The number of language minority students in the public schools who were not proficient enough in English to participate effectively in an English-only classroom is more difficult to estimate than the total language minority population. The estimate for the fifty states and the District of Columbia of limited English proficient (LEP) students for 2000 was about 3.7 million. This represented about 8 percent of the total public school K–12 enrollment for the nation (46.6 million) and was an increase of about 10 percent over 1997–1998.

The largest numbers of LEP students were in the larger population states–California (about 1.5 million LEP students representing 24.9 percent of the state's public school enrollment), Texas (555,000;13.9%), Florida (235,000; 9.9%), New York (229,000; 8%), and Illinois (144,000; 7.1%).

In addition to the LEP students in the fifty states and the District of Columbia, there were about


685,600 LEP students in the seven outlying U.S. jurisdictions (Guam, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands). In four of these U.S. jurisdictions (Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, and Puerto Rico), the entire public school enrollment was reported as limited in their English proficiency. Every state and jurisdiction in the United States included LEP students in their public schools in 2000, ranging from just under 1 percent to 100 percent.

The language backgrounds of these LEP students was fairly stable over the 1990s. The largest language background reported for the public school enrollment by the states in 2000 was Spanish (76.6 percent of all students with limited proficiency in English), followed by Vietnamese (2.3%), Hmong (2.2%), Haitian and French Creole (1.1%), Korean (1.1%), and Cantonese (1%). All other languages were represented with less than 1 percent of LEP students.

Regarding the literacy abilities of the national population, data from 1992 indicated that 89 percent of the national adult population, sixteen years and older (191.3 million), reported being literate (able to read and write very well or well) in English only, 7 percent biliterate in English and another language, and 3 percent literate only in a language other than English. About 1 percent reported they were not literate in any language.

While all of these data provide a profile of the language and literacy diversity of the United States, the data describe an even more diverse population. Many of these students were foreign born and immigrants or refugees from different parts of the world. Many more were children of immigrant or refugee parents, and a smaller number were native born of native-born parents. The number and proportion of limited English proficient students tended to coincide with those groups who have a large proportion of foreign-born members–Latinos and Asian Americans in particular. Immigration from Mexico, Latin America, and Asia was relatively high in the 1980s and 1990s–representing, during the 1990s, 27.7 percent, 13.5 percent, and 22.5 percent, respectively, of all immigration (in comparison, immigrants from Europe and Canada represented 11.4 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively, of all immigrants during the 1990s). This reflects, in part, the reversal of the explicitly selective and restrictive immigration policy priorities favoring northern and western Europe in force between 1917 and 1965. It also reflects the foreign policies of the federal government in receiving refugees from Cuba beginning in the 1960s, Vietnam in the 1970s, and Communist Eastern Europe in the 1980s, and its involvement in the civil wars of El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1980s and 1990s.

Aside from the association with immigration, language diversity is also correlated with low academic achievement–primarily as a result of the inability of the public school systems in the country to meet the communicative and learning needs of these students. There is much controversy over whether to teach limited English proficiency students using English alone as the language of instruction or to allow the use of languages other than English for communicative, informational, and instructional purposes in the classroom–despite evidence domestically and


globally that bilingual instruction can work well. This is complicated by the lack of adequate numbers of teachers able and credentialed to teach bilingually. In addition, a nativist English-only movement begun in the early 1980s has targeted bilingual education and the public and private uses of non-English languages for elimination through efforts to make English the official languages of jurisdictions, to mandate English as the dominant or exclusive language of instruction, or to otherwise officially regulate or prohibit the use of non-English languages. This movement has aligned itself with restrictive immigration groups and policies and has created a chilling climate for the use of languages other than English by individuals in schools as well as in workplaces.

Language Trends

The changes in the numbers of speakers of languages across generations is known as language shift or maintenance. There are many reasons for each of these changes. Research involving European immigrants revealed that the dominant pattern established in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century was a three-generation immigrant process: the immigrant generation was monolingual or dominant in their non-English language, the children born and raised in this country tended to be bilingual in their heritage language and English, and their children were often monolingual in English. This research did not take into account the different intergenerational language patterns of indigenous language minorities, such as American Indian communities/nations, nor did it take into account those colonial language groups incorporated into the country through war, such as Mexicans in the southwest, or the people of Puerto Rico.

More recent research indicates that the language shift from the non-English heritage language to English takes place much more quickly today–some even argue within a single generation–as a result of the more universal schooling and the much longer time spent in schools than in the beginning of the twentieth century. This change also seems to be a result of the increasing influence of the communications media, which are dominated by monolingual English networks and programming; the chilling atmosphere created by the English-only movement and other nativist activities; and other factors. Most of these studies have been short-term studies of individual language change or para-longitudinal in design. They have not been life-cycle studies or even biographical retrospectives of individuals that reflect different language uses at different times of a person's life.

One often-stated situation that results from these changes involves the interactions between parents who are dominant or exclusive speakers of a language other than English and their children who begin to acquire English, especially through the schools, and whose acquisition and development of the non-English language is arrested. In the case of many of these non-English languages, minority children often refuse to speak the non-English language with their parents and sometimes are unable to do so, thereby disrupting the natural and nurturing interactions within these families. This situation also results from the recognition of the low status that many non-English languages have in the country and the advice of many well-meaning but uninformed and ill-advised teachers who believe that one must give up the heritage language in order to acquire English, and so they advise the students and their families to stop using the non-English language.

What these complex processes of language change mean is that the number of English monolinguals increases among language minorities across generations, at the same time that the numbers of speakers of these non-English languages increases in the country, fed by immigration, cross-generational language sharing, and language revitalization efforts.


CAMAROTA, STEVEN. 2001. Immigrants in the United States, 2000: A Snapshot of America's Foreign Born Population. Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies.

GREENBERG, ELIZABETH; MACÍAS, REYNALDO F.; RHODES, DAVID; and CHAN, TSE. 2001. English Literacy and Language Minorities in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

MACÍAS, REYNALDO F. 2001. "Minority Languages in the United States, with a Focus on Spanish in California." In The Other Languages of Europe, ed. Dürk Gorter and Guus Extra. Clevedon, Eng.: Multilingual Matters Press.

NATIONAL CLEARINGHOUSE FOR BILINGUAL EDUCATION. 2002. Survey of the States' Limited English Proficient Students and Available Educational Programs and Services, 1999–2001 Summary Report. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.


In 2000, the number of school-age persons (five to seventeen years of age) who spoke a language other than English in the United States was 9,769,120, or about one out of every five students (the national enrollment of public school students in 2000 was 46,857,321). This assumes, for the sake of argument, that all of these school-age language minority children and youths were in the public schools. About 8 percent (3.7 million students) of the national public-school enrollment in 1999–2000 consisted of language minority students who were not able to use English well enough to participate effectively in an English-only classroom. The proportion of the total enrollment varies by state: In California, 25 percent of the public-school enrollment in 1999–2000 was limited English proficient (LEP), while the proportion was 24 percent in New Mexico, 15 percent in Alaska and Arizona, 14 percent in Texas, and 12 percent in Nevada. LEP students represent nearly 100 percent of the total public-school enrollment in the outlying areas of the United States (Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, and Puerto Rico).

The diversity of students with limited ability in English is great. Some of these students are foreign-born immigrants to the United States–some with and some without prior schooling. Some of them are literate in their native language. They came to the United States at different ages and for different reasons–some to escape civil war or strife and political persecutions, while some were attracted to the opportunities in the United States, and still others drawn by its various programs of refuge and asylum. Most LEP students, however, are born in the United States to immigrant parents, and they start school with a native language other than English and with varying degrees of speaking ability in English (and so are increasingly referred to as English language learners, or ELLs).

The responses of the public schools to this language diversity vary, but they are generally neither comprehensive nor adequate. There are many reasons this is the case, not the least of which is the mismatch between the needs of the students and the resources and expectations of the school systems. A second reason is the ideologically based resistance to meeting language minority student needs promoted by the ethnocentric English-only movement and pro-assimilation groups throughout the country. These groups influence public and educational policy, curriculum and instruction, and school reform. The issues facing language minority students in the public schools are thus varied. Those faced by students with limited proficiency in English are particularly salient–involving the acquisition and development of English, access to the core curriculum, and high-stakes assessments.

Learning English

Many surveys of immigrants to the United States have concluded that learning English is one of three priorities they have immediately after arriving in the country–along with gaining employment and finding a place to live. Parents of native-born language minority students also respond that they see learning English as a high priority for their children, even while they desire their children to keep their heritage languages. Unfortunately, despite the increasing numbers and proportions of language minority LEP students, most schools are neither prepared nor equipped to meet the needs of these students in teaching them English, or in providing them access to the core curriculum in other subject areas. Often the schools will sacrifice access to the core curriculum in favor of first teaching English to these students.

Students who speak a language other than English will often learn to speak and understand English before learning to read and write it, in and out of school. Much of this English-language acquisition and development depends on the age of their arrival in U.S. schools. The earlier they arrive, the more they are exposed to English–and the earlier and more easily they acquire a native-like pronunciation of the language. However, the older they are in age when they arrive, the more easily they are able to develop vocabulary in English (and the more likely they are to acquire English pronunciation with an accent). How much prior schooling students have received in their country of origin is also a factor affecting English-language acquisition. The more schooling they have had before they enter U.S. schools, the quicker they are able to adjust and excel. The more literate they are in their native language, the easier it is to learn to read and write English and succeed in U.S. schools. In addition, the kind of program students receive when they enter U.S. public schools can affect the learning of English.

Language minority students will often learn a conversational form of English before they learn an academic form of the language. It may take a relatively short time (one to three years) to gain fluency in conversational English, but it will take longer (five to seven years) to be proficient in academic English, assuming adequate instruction.

The acquisition and development of English reading and writing for language minority students who are limited in their English proficiency depends as well on whether the students have already learned to read and write in their non-English language. If these students have learned to read in their native language first (mother-tongue, or native-language, literacy), then much of the general knowledge about reading (e.g., one can make sense of print) can be transferred to learning English reading and writing (second-language literacy). If a student's native language uses a phonemic or alphabetic system of writing, then additional knowledge about the writing system can also be transferred to second-language literacy in English.

It is a more difficult task for a language minority student who is not proficient in English to learn how to read and write initially in English. These students must develop their oral English-language abilities and learn how to read and write English. The older the student, the more frequently this is required by the schools to be done simultaneously rather than sequentially (oral language development before literacy). This is more difficult for these language minority students than for native English speakers because it is being done in a more compressed time period and includes learning more language skills at one time than what is required of native English speakers (who bring to elementary school a fully-developed ability in English).

Language of Instruction

Most language minority students with limited English abilities receive their instruction entirely through English. While there is not much good data on the services that LEP students receive in the schools, some generalizations can be made based on several national surveys. In 1993, less than 50 percent of elementary school students limited in their English proficiency received at least a quarter of their instruction in their native language. In middle schools, the percentage was 28 percent, and in high schools, 25 percent. This study also indicated that LEP students of Spanish-language background were more apt to receive this instruction in their heritage language than LEP students of other language backgrounds. In 1998, twenty-six states (which included about 40 percent of the national LEP student enrollment for that year), provided information to the federal government on the language of instruction used to teach these students. They reported that almost 26 percent of all LEP students received some of their instruction in the non-English language through bilingual education (academic instruction through English and a non-English language); while 14 percent received all of their instruction in English only–through various forms of English-as-a-second-language programs. About 12 percent of these students received no special instructional services at all. The language of instruction was not reported for the other 48 percent of LEP students.

The size of the language minority LEP enrollment with a common language background seems to be a good predictor of the use of a non-English language for instruction. In a 1998 survey of big city school districts, the use of a non-English language (along with English) as the language of instruction was found to be more frequent for the largest language group of students of the district (usually Spanish, except for two school districts in Minnesota, which reported Hmong language LEP students as their largest group), and usually in the elementary grades. Otherwise, the preferred language of instruction was exclusively English through some form of an English-as-second-language program.

California enrolls about 40 percent of all of the LEP students in the country. The language of instruction for the great majority of these students has been exclusively English since the adoption of an initiative in 1998 that mandated the language of instruction for the state to be English and the default program for LEP students to be structured English immersion (a form of English-as-second-language instruction in which English is used exclusively or predominantly for instruction). In the spring of 2001, California school districts reported that 46.6 percent of the 1,511,299 LEP students in the state were receiving all of their instruction in English; another 26.6 percent were receiving almost all of their instruction in English, but with a small amount of the non-English language used for communication support; and 5.4 percent were receiving no special instructional services at all. Only 11.1 percent of California's LEP students were receiving bilingual education–academic instruction in both languages–as compared to 30 percent prior to the adoption of the 1998 initiative.

While most language minority students with limited English abilities are receiving some special instructional services, it is clear that almost all of these services use English as the medium of instruction. The most successful model of bilingual instruction–two-way bilingual immersion–was used in only 260 programs in twenty-three states in 2001. In addition, only half of the those enrolled in these programs were LEP students–hardly a major impact on the instructional services received by this population.

Access to the Core Curriculum

The single most difficult aspect of the schooling of language minority LEP students is providing them adequate access to the core curriculum. Most school districts have opted to enforce a policy of learning English first–before these students can be taught other subject matter. This puts language minority LEP students in a precarious academic situation. Many schools are beginning to require special preparation, professional development, and even licensing for their teachers to instruct these students in English. Many language minority students who enter the schools early in their life can sometimes catch up academically with native English speakers when they work harder than these peers. However, the concentrations of language minority students are in high-minority, high-poverty schools, which are often under-resourced and struggle with hiring a fully credentialed and qualified teaching workforce. Receipt of adequate instruction is the exception, not the rule, for language minority students.

School–Home Communication

The absence of teachers and other school staff who can communicate with parents of language minority students is also a problem in informing parents about the academic performance of their children, about the activities of the schools, or even about the expectations of the teachers. As language minority students, especially children, acquire some English, they often abandon the use of their heritage language. This creates another communication difficulty between children and parents in these homes that strains the quality of family interactions.

High-Stakes Testing

During the 1990s the amount and frequency of high-stakes, standardized testing of students increased dramatically. Much of this testing was used as an accountability measure to identify unsuccessful schools and to measure progress towards educational standards set by the states and the federal government. These tests were given exclusively in English to all students. Language minority students with limited English abilities were often excused from this testing in the early 1990s, but increasingly were included throughout the decade and into the first decade of the new millennium. This practice increased despite the fact that LEP students could not understand the language of the tests (which made the results invalid), despite the ethical concerns about such high-stakes testing, and despite the apparent violation of the Office for Civil Rights regulations on language minority testing. In contrast, local school districts tend to use a variety of tests for identification, classification, and reclassification of LEP students, and a set of multiple criteria for these administrative decisions.


AUGUST, DIANE, and HAKUTA, KENJI, eds. 1998. Educating Language-Minority Children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

COUNCIL OF THE GREAT CITY SCHOOLS. 2001. Educating English Language Learners in the Nation's Urban Schools. Washington, DC: Council of the Great City Schools.

FLEISCHMAN, HOWARD, and HOPSTOCK, PAUL. 1993. Descriptive Study of Services to Limited English Proficient Students, Vol. 1: Summary of Findings and Conclusions. Arlington, VA: Development Associates.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2001. Statistics in Brief: Public School Student, Staff, and Graduate Counts by State, School Year 1999–2000. (NCES-2001-326r). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

NATIONAL CLEARINGHOUSE FOR BILINGUAL EDUCATION (NCBE). 1998. Summary Report of the Survey of the States' Limited English Proficient Students and Available Educational Programs and Services, 1996–97. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

OFFICE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS. 1970. Identification of Discrimination and Denial of Services on the Basis of National Origin. Washington, DC: Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.


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