The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism released a report Thursday that offers a different look at just how diverse Hawaii is and the importance of English proficiency.

The report shows 18 percent of the population is foreign-born, and more than 130 languages are spoken in the islands.

Roughly one in four Hawaii residents speak a language other than English at home, which is higher than the U.S. average of 21 percent, a DBEDT press release says.  On Oahu, it’s 28 percent — mostly Ilocano, Tagalog and Japanese.

Historical trends of non-English speaking population in Hawaii compared to the U.S.
Historical trends of non-English speaking population in Hawaii compared to the U.S. Courtesy: DBEDT

The data also shows 12.4 percent of the state’s population speak English less than “very well.” The U.S. average is 8.6 percent.

Germans and Hawaiians had the highest English proficiency out of the non-English-speaking population with over 80 percent speaking “very well.” That’s about double the percent of those whose first language is Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and Ilocano.

English proficiency had strong impacts on an individual’s economic activities, the release says.

“Labor force participation rate of the non-English speakers, who could not speak English well was about 15 percentage points lower than the rates for the English-only speakers and the non-English speakers who could speak English well,” the release says. “The rate difference with these groups was bigger at 33 percentage points for the non-English speakers who could not speak English at all.”

Languages other than English spoken at home in Hawaii compared to the U.S.
Languages other than English spoken at home in Hawaii compared to the U.S. Courtesy: DBEDT

English proficiency also played an important role in the selection of occupation, the release says.

There was a high concentration in two occupation groups — “food preparation and serving” and “building/grounds cleaning and maintenance” — among those who could not speak English well. Roughly half of non-English speakers worked in one of these two occupations if they could not speak English well, the release says.

The median earnings of the non-English speakers were also lower than that of the English-only speaking population for all English proficiency levels, and the earnings gap amplified as English proficiency decreased, the release says.

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