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For English, Press One: Bush vs. Trump on Language and Politics

After Donald Trump said that Jeb Bush should “set the example by speaking English while in the United States,” Jeb Bush countered that immigrants may “start without speaking English, but they learn English and they add vitality to our country.”

Thanks to the American Community Survey, we actually have pretty good data on how many people in the country speak a language other than English at home – and how many of THOSE can also speak English proficiently.

According to ACS data from 2013, about 61.6 million people in the United States speak a language other than English at home. That’s about 21 percent of the population over five years of age. About six-in-ten of those who speak another language also report speaking English “very well.”

The war between Trump and Bush is all about those who speak en espanol – a total of about 38.4 million people in the country. Of Spanish speakers, about 58 percent say they speak English “very well.” And there’s a major generational jump too; while only 37 percent of seniors who speak Spanish at home say they are also very good English speakers, almost eight in 10 of those under 18 are fluent in both languages.

English proficiency among Latinos generally is also on the rise, per the Pew Research Center. In 2013, 68 percent of all Hispanics aged 5 and over were fluent in English, up from 59 percent in 2000.

Focusing only on Spanish speakers misses another part of the country’s immigration story. About 10.7 million people in the country speak other Indo-European languages like French, German or Urdu; 9.8 million speak Asian or Pacific Island languages like Chinese or Tagalog, and 2.8 million speak other languages ranging from Arabic to American Indian dialects.

So, there are plenty of people who aren’t exactly following the “example” that Trump wants to see. But there’s something going on politically here too: While a significant chunk of foreign language speakers aren’t U.S. citizens (which is Trump’s implication), many of them are – and are eligible to vote (which is surely on Bush’s mind as he eyes the general electorate).

Among the voting-eligible population (adult citizens over 18), 14.5 percent report speaking a language other than English at home. And 8.3 percent report speaking Spanish, which calculates to about 18.5 million primarily Spanish-speaking potential American voters.

While some of the highest concentrations of non-English speaking citizens are in two states that aren’t likely to have a whole lot of mystery when it comes to their electoral college votes – heavily Republican Texas (25.6 percent) and deep blue California (33.6 percent) – there are some significant populations in swing states, too.

Here are the percentages of populations of U.S. citizens over 18 years of age who speak a language other than English in the 10 most competitive states in the 2012 election.

  • FLORIDA – 20.9 percent
  • OHIO – 4.6 percent
  • NORTH CAROLINA – 5.2 percent
  • VIRGINIA – 9.9 percent
  • COLORADO – 10.7 percent
  • PENNSYLVANIA – 7.8 percent
  • IOWA – 3.9 percent
  • NEW HAMPSHIRE – 6.3 percent
  • NORTH CAROLINA – 5.2 percent
  • NEVADA – 21 percent
  • WISCONSIN – 5.4 percent