WASHINGTON – When Cecilia Rojas moved to Maryland from Peru 20 years ago, she spoke no English.
Rojas, 46, taught herself English by watching television.
“I love TV and at that time we didn’t have Spanish channels and so I watched a lot of TV and learned English,” said the director of the Latino Outreach Program at the Community Ministries of Rockville, which offers English classes to immigrants.
But Rojas is a minority in the United States, where only 23 percent of Latino immigrants nationwide speak English very well, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report released Thursday.
In Maryland, census figures indicate the Hispanic population has a better grasp on the language. Although 89 percent of Hispanics reported speaking Spanish at home, 55 percent are proficient in English.
The 2006 census recorded answers from Maryland Hispanics 5 and older, while Pew surveyed 14,000 adults nationwide from 2002 to 2006.
The age difference may be why Latinos in Maryland reported better language skills.
“Our school system pretty much turns out English speakers at a young age,” said Audrey Singer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a nonprofit public policy group in Washington, D.C.
The Hispanic immigrant community in Maryland is also fairly small compared to other regions, which could account for more people speaking English, Singer said.
“Because immigration is a relatively new phenomenon to this region, I think that number reflects the less mature immigration flow,” she said. “If people are entering into a well-established immigrant population, they may not need to learn the English language that quickly.”
Most well-educated and affluent immigrants speak English at work, however, overall 15 percent of Latino immigrants speak English at work, the Pew study found.
Many immigrants in Rojas’ classes have less than a fifth-grade education from their native countries, so learning English is even more difficult, she said.
“The population that we help, the level of education is really low. When they come to this country there are few that have finished high school,” Rojas said. “They come over here with a third-grade or fourth-grade education, so they have trouble with their own language.”
More than half of Hispanics believe that language barriers result in discrimination in the United States, said D’Vera Cohn, an author of the Pew report, “English Usage Among Hispanics in the United States,” in a conference call.
“We know that ability to speak English is crucial to getting a good job and integrating into the wider society,” she said. “Language is a vehicle for assimilation.”
A Pew report released in 2006 found that 41 percent of Latinos did not believe they needed to learn English to be part of American society, while 57 percent of them said Latinos should learn English.
The national debate on immigration has caused some local governments to create resolutions on immigration, since the federal government has not been able to pass reform.
In 2006, the Taneytown City Council voted 3-2 to make English the town’s official language. Taneytown is a community of 5,000 people where only 37 people reported speaking English “less than well” in the 2000 Census.
“I was out personally talking to people and people were shocked to find out that we not only as a city, but as a state and a country, did not have an official language,” said Paul Chamberlain, the Taneytown councilman who introduced the English-language resolution.
Although the Carroll County town has not seen an immigrant boom, Chamberlain said he wanted to act before an issue arose.
“You do not want to go ahead and start changing things after they become a problem,” he said. “If you can perceive a problem and head it off, it’s more cost effective. Look across the nation.”