What do we know about the families of English language learners?

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Connecticut is more diverse than ever, with more than 100 different languages spoken in homes throughout the state. However, state and national data demonstrate significant educational attainment and income gaps for English Language Learners when compared to their English-speaking peers.

Starting in 2014, the Latino Endowment Fund at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving focused on the issue of English Language Learners (ELL) through a series of forums. This month The Latino Endowment Fund released a report based on what was learned at these events that highlights the opportunities and the challenges of increased cultural and linguistic diversity.

The forums raised a series of solutions for many long-standing challenges that adults and families face:

  • Supporting better coordination and collaboration between various adult ESL training programs.
  • Developing an ESL/adult education curriculum for parents that focuses on interactions with their children’s schools and teachers.
  • Providing additional support to create a smooth transition from adult education ESL classes to college-level ESL classes through the development of a coordinated curriculum.

Since these focus on adults and families, what does the data tell us about the adults with limited English proficiency and the families of English-Language learners?

The report states that ‘diversity contributes to our local economy and makes our region more competitive nationally and globally’ and that the number of Hispanic entrepreneurs has tripled nationally since 1990. What else do we know about entrepreneurial activity and diversity more locally?

The statistics on entrepreneurial activity come from a report from the Partnership for a New American Economy. They define entrepreneurs as self-employed workers (ages 25 to 64, living outside group quarters). While their report is national in scope, the same data is available for Connecticut through the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS database.

Looking at the same data but at a local level shows that there has been no increase in the number of non-Hispanic entrepreneurs in Connecticut since 1990. The statewide growth in entrepreneurs has come entirely from Hispanic workers.

How does this kind of entrepreneurial activity relate to English proficiency? In Connecticut, about 10 percent of the working-age population self-identify as not speaking English very well. For the self-employed, that figure is slightly higher at 12 percent.

For the Latino population, about 63 percent of self-employed entrepreneurs identify as not speaking English very well, compared to 41 percent of Latinos employed by others. Knowing more about the types of work undertaken by adults with limited English proficiency would help to further target ESL programs and curriculum, as the report suggests.

While entrepreneurial activity contributes to the economy, language barriers also prevent adults and their families from finding economic or educational opportunities. Is there data that will help to identify when and where this happens?

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 4.09.35 PMWe know that income levels are drastically lower for linguistically isolated households, home to 174,000 Connecticut residents. The Census defines ‘linguistically isolated’ as households where all members 14 years old and over have at least some difficulty with English. Since adults are often the recipients of information — from schools, businesses, government, etc. — households where the adults have limited English proficiency may have difficulty navigating these systems.

These households are concentrated mostly — but not entirely — in the urban centers in the state. The map below shows that in parts of Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Windham and other cities more than 20 percent of households are linguistically isolated. In parts of Hartford, more than 40 percent of households are linguistically isolated, while other neighborhoods have virtually no such families.

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Linguistically isolated households are not only found in cities though. Parts of Greenwich, Milford, Shelton, Stratford, Wallingford and West Hartford all report more than 10 percent of households as having no adults proficient in English.

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What do we know about these families that may have challenges with English for both adults and children? Refugee households are likely to be one group that has difficulty in English.

Forty-eight countries have sent refugees to Connecticut since 2002, around 16 different countries per year on average. The Refugee Processing Center reports on the destination and arrival points for refugees so we know when refugees arrived in Connecticut and where they are from, although we don’t know if families stay in Connecticut after their arrival. (Department of Social Services provides some reporting on family structure.)

While we don’t know if refugee families remain in Connecticut, we do see that many of the languages spoken in schools in our state have roots in the same countries. Hartford has been the point of arrival for 51 percent of all refugees to the state over the past decade, part of why the city has so much linguistic diversity. Many of the most-frequently spoken languages in Hartford schools are based in the same countries that are sources of refugee populations — Burmese and Karen, Bosnian, Nepali (spoken by ethnic Nepali refugees from Bhutan), Somali and so on.

As the data clearly illustrates, the future of our Connecticut economy will largely be determined by how well we educate and train our English Language Learners. Now is the time to take decisive steps to support our more culturally and linguistically diverse population in order to enhance the richness of our state and create stronger links to the global marketplace.

What do you think?