The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 7, 2015

One in fifteen children in the DC metro area are linguistically isolated

January 7, 2015

The DC metro area is home to almost 177,000 children living in households headed by a parent who is limited English proficient (LEP), defined as speaking English “less than very well.” And almost half of those kids—about 85,000—live in a linguistically isolated household, where everyone age 15 and older is LEP.

Kids in linguistically isolated households depend on their parents to seek out educational opportunities, health care, and community resources to bolster their healthy growth and development. But without translation and interpretation assistance, LEP parents use imperfect information filtered through community brokers, burden young children to translate for them, and sometimes forgo available supports altogether.

Share of children (age 5-17) who live in a linguistically isolated      household (by Census tract)
DC Metro
Source: 2008-2012 5-year data from American Community Survey

Public policies can help meet these families’ language needs, a critical concern in the DC metro area, which is home to a large and very diverse immigrant population. Drawing partly on data analysis for our report “Ten Years of Language Access in Washington, DC,” we highlight the immigrant origins and characteristics of children in linguistically isolated DC-area households and discuss ways to support these families.

Where do linguistically isolated families in the DC area live?

Children in linguistically isolated households are highly concentrated in several parts of the DC metro area , which creates a greater challenge for serving families’ language needs. Fairfax, Virginia, is the county with the highest share of kids (age 5-17) living in linguistically isolated households: about 8 percent. Arlington and Prince William counties in Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland, have shares of about 7 percent each.

Where are these immigrant families from?

About 29 percent of kids in linguistically isolated DC-area households live in a household headed by a parent from El Salvador, compared with about 10 percent from Mexico and 6 percent each from Guatemala, Vietnam, and Honduras. Therefore, the majority of linguistically isolated kids live in a Spanish-speaking household (63 percent), but the language needs of the other 37 percent are diverse and may be hard to meet. The next most common household languages are Vietnamese (5.5 percent of all kids in linguistically isolated households), Chinese languages (5.1 percent), and Korean (4.4 percent).

What is the socioeconomic status of these families?

Children in linguistically isolated households may have a higher need for government and private support because many linguistically isolated households also have low incomes and parents with low educational attainment.

Almost a quarter (24 percent) of kids in linguistically isolated DC-area households live below the federal poverty line, while 34 percent live in low-income families with income between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty line. To put that in perspective, 14 percent of kids who are not linguistically isolated but who live with LEP parents—and 9 percent of kids in non-LEP households—live below the poverty line.

What’s more, the majority of kids in linguistically isolated DC-area households (about 60 percent) live with parents who have no more than a high school degree.

Given their low household incomes, and the fact that 82 percent of kids in linguistically isolated DC-area households are US citizens, many of these children are likely eligible for public benefits. But, among citizen kids in low-income families, those who are linguistically isolated have lower rates of household food stamps and cash assistance receipt than those who are not linguistically isolated, suggesting that their parents may have trouble signing them up for benefits. On the other hand, rates of public health insurance coverage are similar among citizen kids in poor households, regardless of whether the household is linguistically isolated.

How can communities support linguistically isolated families?

Our report, “Ten Years of Language Access in Washington, DC,” offers an overview of DC’s Language Access Act of 2004, which requires all District agencies to ensure that residents with limited or no English language skills have full access to services. This legislation has increased the city’s ability to facilitate language access in city agencies, despite limited resources and diverse language needs. Other counties in the DC metro area with high numbers of linguistically isolated households—such as Montgomery County, Maryland, and Arlington and Fairfax counties in Virginia—also have formal language access policies.

In addition to considering such policies, we recommend that cities with linguistically isolated kids maximize the use of limited translation and interpretation resources by collecting data about language needs in their communities, particularly needs among families with children. These data can help policymakers and service providers understand how many clients of public agencies need translation services, what languages they speak, and who would access public services if interpretation was available.

Careful planning and allocation of resources can help ensure that immigrants have access to services regardless of their English proficiency. In doing so, cities can help LEP parents connect to resources to give their children every possible opportunity and support.

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For a look at national trends in dual language learners, and a summary of what we know about this group, see the Child Trends DataBank (http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=dual-language-learners). For national data, and data for every state, on the school achievement of English language learners, see Child Trends' recent research brief (http://www.childtrends.org/?publications=the-academic-achievement-of-eng...).