POLITIFACT: Pat Buchanan’s Mostly False Claim About The Language Californians Speak At Home
Pat Buchanan, a conservative commentator and backer of Republican Donald Trump for president, believes America is losing its ethnic identity.
He says that identity is tied to the English language.
In a recent interview on NPR about America’s changing ethnic and linguistic makeup, Buchanan spoke about the large share of Californians who speak a foreign language at home.
"We created a really united country where 97 percent of us spoke English in 1960," Buchanan said in the interview on May 5. "Now in half the homes in California, people speak a language other than English in their own homes."
We checked the second part of Buchanan’s statement, about the percentage of Californians who speak a foreign language at home.
It’s a claim that was close to correct on the numbers, but wrongly implies that half the state does not speak English.
Close by the numbers
Nearly 44 percent of Californians age 5 or older spoke a language other than English at home as of 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That doesn’t mean they speak a foreign language exclusively at home.
Data on the percentage of "homes" where a foreign language is spoken is harder to find.
But after crunching some 2014 census figures, Steven Camarota, director of research for the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, told us that 48.3 percent of households in California "have at least one person who speaks a language other than English at home."
"I would call it half," Camarota said in an email.
He added that foreign language households are often undercounted during census surveys.
More to the story
Buchanan’s statement is not far from the truth, when examining the numbers alone.
But he ignores figures about how many Californians speak English proficiently. Nineteen percent in the state report having limited English language skills, the highest share of any state in the nation, followed by 14 percent in Texas and 13 percent in New York, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
That means, however, that more than 80 percent of Californians report having a stronger set of English language skills, or speaking the language "very well." Proficiency levels offer a more accurate look at how California and its many immigrants are adopting the country’s primary language, said Laura Hill, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, who studies immigrant populations.
Buchanan’s claim about foreign language speakers includes many who Hill said "could be completely fluent in Spanish and English or English and Vietnamese. They could have really high levels of English fluency."
Hill added that "If you’re trying to make a point about immigrant integration, you’re going to be more interested in understanding not how many people speak a different language, but how many don’t speak English very well."
When we asked Buchanan to explain his statement, his representative sent us links to news articles that say more than half of Los Angeles, but not California as a whole, speaks a foreign language at home.
Buchanan made two runs for the Republican presidential nomination, coming up short in 1992 and 1996. He also ran a failed bid for president in 2000 as a Reform Party candidate.
During a conversation on NPR, Pat Buchanan said "In half the homes in California, people speak a language other than English in their own homes."
Looking at the numbers alone, he’s close to correct.
But he fails to note that many of those who speak a foreign language at home also are fluent in English. He also omits the fact that only 19 percent of Californians, not half, are considered limited English speakers.
Buchanan’s statement contains some element of truth, but in the context of his conversation, it wrongly implies that half the state does not speak English. It ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
We rate his claim Mostly False.
You can read full versions of all our fact checks at PolitiFactCalifornia.com.