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Data Dictionary: Census 1990
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Survey: Census 1990
Data Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Table: P28. Age By Language Spoken At Home And Ability To Speak English [43]
Universe: Persons 5 years and over
Table Details
P28. Age By Language Spoken At Home And Ability To Speak English
Universe: Persons 5 years and over
Variable Label
Relevant Documentation:
Excerpt from: Social Explorer, U.S. Census Bureau; Census of Population and Housing, 1990: Summary Tape File 3 on CD-ROM [machine-readable data files] / prepared by the Bureau of the Census. Washington: The Bureau [producer and distributor], 1991.
The data on age were derived from answers to questionnaire item 5, which was asked of all persons. The age classification is based on the age of the person in complete years as of April 1, 1990. The age response in question 5a was used normally to represent a person's age. However, when the age response was unacceptable or unavailable, a person's age was derived from an acceptable year-of-birth response in question 5b.

Data on age are used to determine the applicability of other questions for a person and to classify other characteristics in census tabulations. Age data are needed to interpret most social and economic characteristics used to plan and examine many programs and policies. Therefore, age is tabulated by single years of age and by many different groupings, such as 5-year age groups.

Some tabulations are shown by the age of the householder. These data were derived from the age responses for each householder. (For more information on householder, see the discussion under "Household Type and Relationship.")

Median Age
This measure divides the age distribution into two equal parts: one-half of the cases falling below the median value and one-half above the value. Generally, median age is computed on the basis of more detailed age intervals than are shown in some census publications; thus, a median based on a less detailed distribution may differ slightly from a corresponding median for the same population based on a more detailed distribution. (For more information on medians, see the discussion under "Derived Measures.")

Limitation of the Data
Counts in 1970 and 1980 for persons 100 years old and over were substantially overstated. Improvements were made in the questionnaire design, in the allocation procedures, and to the respondent instruction guide to attempt to minimize this problem for the 1990 census.

Review of detailed 1990 census information indicated that respondents tended to provide their age as of the date of completion of the questionnaire, not their age as of April 1, 1990. In addition, there may have been a tendency for respondents to round their age up if they were close to having a birthday. It is likely that approximately 10 percent of persons in most age groups are actually 1 year younger. For most single years of age, the misstatements are largely offsetting. The problem is most pronounced at age 0 because persons lost to age 1 may not have been fully offset by the inclusion of babies born after April 1, 1990, and because there may have been more rounding up to age 1 to avoid reporting age as 0 years. (Age in complete months was not collected for infants under age 1.)

The reporting of age 1 year older than age on April 1, 1990, is likely to have been greater in areas where the census data were collected later in 1990. The magnitude of this problem was much less in the three previous censuses where age was typically derived from respondent data on year of birth and quarter of birth. (For more information on the design of the age question, see the section below that discusses "Comparability.")

Age data have been collected in every census. For the first time since 1950, the 1990 data are not available by quarter year of age. This change was made so that coded information could be obtained for both age and year of birth. In each census since 1940, the age of a person was assigned when it was not reported. In censuses before 1940, with the exception of 1880, persons of unknown age were shown as a separate category. Since 1960, assignment of unknown age has been performed by a general procedure described as "imputation." The specific procedures for imputing age have been different in each census. (For more information on imputation, see Appendix C, Accuracy of the Data.)

Excerpt from: Social Explorer, U.S. Census Bureau; Census of Population and Housing, 1990: Summary Tape File 3 on CD-ROM [machine-readable data files] / prepared by the Bureau of the Census. Washington: The Bureau [producer and distributor], 1991.
Language Spoken At Home and Ability to Speak English
Language Spoken at Home--Data on language spoken at home were derived from the answers to questionnaire items 15a and 15b, which were asked of a sample of persons born before April 1, 1985. Instructions mailed with the 1990 census questionnaire stated that a respondent should mark "Yes" in question 15a if the person sometimes or always spoke a language other than English at home and should not mark "Yes" if a language was spoken only at school or if speaking was limited to a few expressions or slang. For question 15b, respondents were instructed to print the name of the non-English language spoken at home. If the person spoke more than one language other than English, the person was to report the language spoken more often or the language learned first.

The cover of the census questionnaire included information in Spanish which provided a telephone number for respondents to call to request a census questionnaire and instructions in Spanish. Instruction guides were also available in 32 other languages to assist enumerators who encountered households or respondents who spoke no English.

Questions 15a and 15b referred to languages spoken at home in an effort to measure the current use of languages other than English. Persons who knew languages other than English but did not use them at home or who only used them elsewhere were excluded. Persons who reported speaking a language other than English at home may also speak English; however, the questions did not permit determination of the main or dominant language of persons who spoke both English and another language. (For more information, see discussion below on "Ability to Speak English.")

For persons who indicated that they spoke a language other than English at home in question 15a, but failed to specify the name of the language in question 15b, the language was assigned based on the language of other speakers in the household; on the language of a person of the same Spanish origin or detailed race group living in the same or a nearby area; or on a person of the same ancestry or place of birth. In all cases where a person was assigned a non-English language, it was assumed that the language was spoken at home. Persons for whom the name of a language other than English was entered in question 15b, and for whom question 15a was blank were assumed to speak that language at home.

The write-in responses listed in question 15b (specific language spoken) were transcribed onto computer files and coded into more than 380 detailed language categories using an automated coding system. The automated procedure compared write-in responses reported by respondents with entries in a computer dictionary, which initially contained approximately 2,000 language names. The dictionary was updated with a large number of new names, variations in spelling, and a small number of residual categories. Each write-in response was given a numeric code that was associated with one of the detailed categories in the dictionary. If the respondent listed more than one non-English language, only the first was coded.

The write-in responses represented the names people used for languages they speak. They may not match the names or categories used by linguists. The sets of categories used are sometimes geographic and sometimes linguistic. Figure 1 provides an illustration of the content of the classification schemes used to present language data. For more information, write to the Chief, Population Division, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Washington, DC 20233.

Household Language
In households where one or more persons (age 5 years old or over) speak a language other than English, the household language assigned to all household members is the non-English language spoken by the first person with a non-English language in the following order:

householder, spouse, parent, sibling, child, grandchild, other relative, stepchild, unmarried partner, housemate or roommate, roomer, boarder, or foster child, or other nonrelative. Thus, persons who speak only English may have a non-English household language assigned to them in tabulations of persons by household language.

Figure 1. Four- and Twenty-Five-Group Classifications of 1990 Census Languages Spoken at Home with Illustrative Examples
Four-Group Classification Twenty-Five-Group Classification Examples
Spanish Other Indo-European Spanish Spanish, Ladino
  French French, Cajun,French Creole
  Other West Afrikaans, Dutch,
  Germanic Pennsylvania Dutch
  Scandanavian Danish, Norwegian, Swedish
  South Slavic Serbocroatian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Slovene
  Other Slavic Czech, Slovak, Ukranian
  Indic Hindi, Bengali, Gujarathi, Punjabi, Romany, Sinhalese
  Other Indo European, Armenian, Gaelic,
  not elsewhere classified Lithuanian, Persian
Languages of Asia and the Pacific Chinese  
  Mon-Khmer Cambodian
  Other languages Chamorro, Dravidian
  (part) Languages, Hawaiian,
    Ilocano, Thai, Turkish
All other languages Arabic  
  Native North  
  American languages  
  Other languages Amharic, Syriac,
  (part) Finnish, Hebrew,
    Languages of
    Central and South
    America, Other
    Languages of Africa

Ability to Speak English
Persons 5 years old and over who reported that they spoke a language other than English in question 15a were also asked in question 15c to indicate their ability to speak English based on one of the following categories: "Very well," "Well," "Not well," or "Not at all."

The data on ability to speak English represent the person's own perception about his or her own ability or, because census questionnaires are usually completed by one household member, the responses may represent the perception of another household member. The instruction guides and questionnaires that were mailed to households did not include any information on how to interpret the response categories in question 15c.

Persons who reported that they spoke a language other than English at home but whose ability to speak English was not reported, were assigned the English-language ability of a randomly selected person of the same age, Spanish origin, nativity and year of entry, and language group.

Linguistic Isolation
A household in which no person age 14 years or over speaks only English and no person age 14 years or over who speaks a language other than English speaks English "Very well" is classified as "linguistically isolated." All the members of a linguistically isolated household are tabulated as linguistically isolated, including members under age 14 years who may speak only English.

Limitation of the Data
Persons who speak a language other than English at home may have first learned that language at school. However, these persons would be expected to indicate that they spoke English "Very well." Persons who speak a language other than English, but do not do so at home, should have been reported as not speaking a language other than English at home.
The extreme detail in which language names were coded may give a false impression of the linguistic precision of these data. The names used by speakers of a language to identify it may reflect ethnic, geographic, or political affiliations and do not necessarily respect linguistic distinctions. The categories shown in the tabulations were chosen on a number of criteria, such as information about the number of speakers of each language that might be expected in a sample of the United States population.

Information on language has been collected in every census since 1890. The comparability of data among censuses is limited by changes in question wording, by the subpopulations to whom the question was addressed, and by the detail that was published.

The same question on language was asked in the 1980 and 1990 censuses. This question on the current language spoken at home replaced the questions asked in prior censuses on mother tongue; that is, the language other than English spoken in the person's home when he or she was a child; one's first language; or the language spoken before immigrating to the United States. The censuses of 1910-1940, 1960 and 1970 included questions on mother tongue. A change in coding procedure from 1980 to 1990 should have improved accuracy of coding and may affect the number of persons reported in some of the 380 plus categories. It should not greatly affect the 4-group or 25- group lists. In 1980, coding clerks supplied numeric codes for the written entries on each questionnaire using a 2,000 name reference list. In 1990 written entries were transcribed to a computer file and matched to a computer dictionary which began with the 2,000 name list, but expanded as unmatched names were referred to headquarters specialists for resolution.

The question on ability to speak English was asked for the first time in 1980. In tabulations from 1980, the categories "Very well" and "Well" were combined. Data from other surveys suggested a major difference between the category "Very well" and the remaining categories. In tabulations showing ability to speak English, persons who reported that they spoke English "Very well" are presented separately from persons who reported their ability to speak English as less than "Very well."