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Far fewer Utahns than the national average struggle with English, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released Tuesday. The findings may challenge stereotypes sometimes used in heated immigration debates about how hard new arrivals work to learn English.
Only 14.9 percent of Utahns speak a language other than English at home, well below the national average of 20.9 percent. And nearly two-thirds of them 64.4 percent report that they also speak English "very well," better than the 58.2 percent average nationally.
Among those Utahns who speak another language at home, just 4.1 percent of them speak no English at all, well below the national average of 7 percent. And 14.2 percent of them speak English "not well," again better than the 15.4 percent national average.
"It shows that here in Utah, most people understand they have to learn English. It is the only way to succeed," said Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino. "In places like Miami where there is a higher concentration of Latinos, they might be able to get by with learning just the basics because so many people speak Spanish. You can't here."
The Census numbers "are good for everyone," said Yapias, adding it shows the effort made among newer immigrants to learn English. "There has been a great emphasis on that in the Latino community in recent years." He pointed to classes for parents by school districts and churches.
"Everybody knows the key to making it is English language acquisition," said University of Utah research economist Pam Perlich.
She cautions, though, that more people may struggle with English than the estimates indicate because it is difficult for people with language problems to participate in such surveys. She also notes that some areas within Utah such as Salt Lake City and West Valley City have much higher local concentrations of people learning English than statewide averages show.
The new estimates say about 9.6 percent of Utahns an estimated 241,535 people speak Spanish at home, the most popular language in the state besides English.
All other languages spoken in homes are used by one-half percent or less of the population.
The next most popular languages in order are: Pacific island languages such as Samoan and Tongan, spoken by 12,876 people; Chinese, spoken by 10,549; German, 9,563; Navajo, 9,151; Portugese, 6,979; Vietnamese, 6,962; French, 6,083; Korean, 4,865; Serbo-Croatian, 4,072; Russian, 3,939; African languages, 3,837; and Italian, 3,300. The Census Bureau also released Tuesday an online map showing the spread of use of different languages.
Perlich said many more Utahns than those numbers show likely speak languages other than English, but the survey is worded to measure only how many people use such languages with others in their homes.
"So they are not really getting at how multilingual is the population of Utah. Because of [LDS] missions and the Missionary Training Center, we've got more linguistic diversity than shows up," she said.
While the Census estimates do not count exactly how many different languages are spoken in Utah, an annual survey by the Utah State Office of Education found that Utah schoolchildren report speaking 134 different languages at home, said Jeffrey Ojeda, English learner specialist for the state board.
He said that creates challenges, "and changes how many classrooms function."
What is called "sheltered instruction" is used more to integrate language and content learning, Ojeda said, relying on such things as visual cues and demonstrations that use all the senses, simple language and increased interaction with students.
He said studies show these techniques tend to improve education for all students.
Perlich sees a benefit for Utah from all of the language and cultural diversity.
"That's a great resource for us as we try to compete globally," she said. "For a metropolitan area as small as Salt Lake City, we have an amazing breadth and depth of linguistic diversity comparable to much larger cities."
Top languages Utahns speak at home besides English
• Spanish, 241,535 people, 9.62% of Utahns.
• Pacific Island languages (such as Tongan and Samoan), 12,876, 0.51%
• Chinese, 10,549, 0.42%
• German, 9,563, 0.38%
• Navajo, 9,151, 0.36%
• Portugese, 6,979, 0.28%
• Vietnamese, 6,962, 0.28%
• French, 6,082, 0.24%
* Korean, 4,865, 0.19%
• Serbo-Croatian, 4,072, 0.16%
Source: 2011 American Community Survey, 3-year data.