A recent U.S. Census Bureau data release explores in detail the variety of languages spoken within homes in the United States. It reveals that 20 percent of the population 5 years of age and older are using one of at least 350 different languages other than English as their primary means of communication in the household.
In Idaho, 10.4 percent of the population 5 years of age and older uses a primary language other than English in the household, ranking 28th in the nation among the 50 states and Washington, D.C.
This data, reported as an average from 2009-2013, reveals a tapestry of at least 95 languages actively spoken in Idaho. A substantial portion of the population for both the nation and Idaho speak English at any age “less than very well,” according to the Census Bureau data. This represents a group that is likely encountering numerous barriers to gaining full entry into the economy potentially contributing to the present circumstance of slower labor force growth.
A short-term solution has been implemented by some employers who have hired bilingual supervisors to oversee employees with limited English proficiency. This structure exists with lower-skilled positions such as housekeeping, farm work and assembly line workers. For high-skilled jobs, employers may hire individuals who don’t speak English at home but speak other languages including English to a lesser degree of fluency. Some immigrants are highly educated, speaking many languages fluently while others who speak English are not as fluent in English as in other languages. They may be able to transition into the workplace well while requiring a little extra time when training to ensure the communication is spot on.
Languages in Idaho
Out of Idaho’s population of 1,465,600 older than 5 years of age, 153,000 residents speak a language other than English in their households; 114,600 Spanish speakers make up the bulk of this group, representing 74.9 percent of people speaking a language other than English and 10.4 of Idaho’s total population of speakers.
As shown in Table 1, Idaho’s Spanish speaking population is larger than other non-English languages spoken in the household at 74.9 percent, and it ranks fourth in concentration after the southern border states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Some of the most northern and remote states in the U.S. see their population of Spanish spoken at home diluted by other languages. In Hawaii, for instance, the concentration of Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian speakers is greater than Spanish speakers. Nationally the proportion of Spanish speakers among those using a language other than English drops to 62.1 percent, but it remains the most common representing 12.9 percent of the national total.
The other Indo-European languages follow Spanish as the most commonly spoken in Idaho homes (Table 2), a group which incorporates German, French, and Serb-Croatian languages (Table 3). While Asian and Pacific Island languages are the third most prevalent in Idaho, Chinese – that includes Cantonese, Mandarin and other Chinese Languages – has the largest share.
Basque / Euskara
Less familiar than the Spanish-speaking population is the Basque people. Idaho has a substantial Basque population, with Boise considered one of the cultural epicenters globally. There are approximately 1,700 people in the U.S. speaking Basque in their homes, with Idaho ranked behind No. 1 California with an almost 30 percent share. The U.S. Census estimates 48 percent of those who speak Basque at home report they speak English “less than very well.” An example of the enduring culture of Idaho Basque is Jaialdi, a festival held every five years in Boise. The 2015 Jaialdi attracted up to 50,000 visitors to Boise, estimated by the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau, which tracks travelers to the capitol city. The crowds were comprised of people with Basque ancestry, as well as a sizeable group of non-Basques. Global travelers came from the Basque regions of France and Spain, along with many South American countries where Basque have migrated.
The United States is a melting pot that is transformed with each new wave of immigration. There are cultural differences that create challenges for new immigrants initially and the conversations that are left unshared because of a language barrier can create isolation and misunderstandings socially and at the workplace.
Those who speak English “less than very well” encapsulates all of the languages that are spoken at home outside of English. That group totals over 25.1 million nationally and 58,000 in Idaho – 41.7 percent and 37.8 percent of overall population, respectively. Idaho ranks 10th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Idaho’s agricultural industry historically has hired non-English speaking workforce for its labor intensive jobs. Idaho’s natural resource industry maintains many jobs filled by individuals who speak English as a second language. Other industries in Idaho that hire workers who are limited English proficient include manufacturing, accommodations and food service, administration and support and waste management and remediation services.
Language and communication skills are keys to economic success for any individual wherever they find themselves. Making an effort to improve the skill level of those reporting they speak English “less than very well” would likely translate to an economic win for the individual, for Idaho and the nation.
The Census report data can be found at http://www.census.gov/data/tables/2013/demo/2009-2013-lang-tables.html?eml=gd&utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery
Jan.Roeser@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
(208) 735-2500 ext 3639