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Language Use and Linguistic Isolation: Historical Data and Methodological Issues

Paul Siegel, Elizabeth Martin, and Rosalind Bruno

KEY WORDS: English proficiency, language barrier, measurement error, immigration, Voting Rights Act, targeting


In this paper, we discuss the Census measurement of household language, English language ability, and linguistic isolation, review evidence on non-English language use, and consider the characteristics of households and areas affected by high rates of linguistic isolation in 1990 and 1980. Because data on linguistic isolation have been used to target survey activity and suggested as a means of focusing social programs, we consider several related measurement issues with important practical implications for potential uses of these data. Both policy and procedural uses of the concept hinge on the assumption that linguistic isolation represents a barrier to effective communication. The strategy of targeting language communications to small areas rests on the assumption that linguistically isolated households are geographically concentrated, but in1990 this premise was questionable. Moreover, it may be difficult to reliably identify areas high in linguistic isolation due to sampling error. Nonetheless, on the basis of our review of evidence, we argue that linguistic isolation is more relevant than non-English language use for shaping strategies for surveys which require a (single) household informant. The importance of language as a barrier to survey administration needs direct assessment.

CITATION: Paul Siegel, Elizabeth Martin, and Rosalind Bruno. “Language Use and Linguistic Isolation: Historical Data and Methodological Issues.” Pp. 167-190 in Statistical Policy Working Paper 32: 2000 Seminar on Integrating Federal Statistical Information and Processes. Washington DC: Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology, Office of Management and Budget. April 2001.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Research Division

Created: January 26, 2007
Last revised: January 26, 2007

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Statistical Research Division | (301) 763-3215 (or |   Last Revised: October 08, 2010