Language Barriers and Digital Equity

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Digital Beat

Language Barriers and Digital Equity

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s Digital Equity Act recognizes eight “covered populations” as disproportionately experiencing digital inequity. These groups are to be a focus of efforts supported through grants and planning processes:

  1. Individuals living in households with incomes at or below 150 percent of the poverty line.
  2. Individuals 60 years of age or older.
  3. Veterans.
  4. Individuals with disabilities.
  5. Individuals with barriers to the English language (including English language learners and those with low literacy).
  6. Members of racial and ethnic minority groups.
  7. Individuals residing in rural areas.
  8. Individuals incarcerated in non-federal correctional facilities.

These groups experience difficulties accessing the internet for varied yet overlapping reasons. In this and upcoming articles, we look at data that explains why these populations are being targeted for digital equity efforts.

Individuals With Language Barriers

English remains the dominant language on the internet, and those with limited English-language proficiency face additional barriers in using the internet.

In 2019, more than 44.9 million immigrants lived in the United States. One-third (14.8 million) were low income, meaning that their family’s income was below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. These immigrants face challenges including language barriers and lack of access to information. In 2019, approximately 46 percent of immigrants ages five and older (approximately 20 million people) were Limited English Proficient (LEP). Immigrants accounted for 81 percent of the country’s 25.5 million LEP individuals. In 2019, 15 percent of low-income immigrants lived in an unbanked household—that is, one in which no household member had a checking or savings account—in which the process of paying for monthly service can be more difficult.

According to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC; also known as the Survey of Adult Skills), as of 2015, 36 percent of native-born, native-language adults reached higher levels of proficiency solving problems in digital environments or using digital tools compared to just 12 percent of U.S. residents who are foreign-born and speak a language other than English. Immigrants who speak a language other than English in the home were also four times as likely as English speakers to have no experience with computers.

In 2016, the Sesame Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that 10 percent of families headed by Hispanic immigrants had no access to the internet, compared with 7 percent of U.S.-born Latinos.

The National League of Cities identified a number of key factors that make it harder to bridge the digital divide:

  • About 23 percent of immigrants are undocumented. Because of their legal status and a fear of deportation, this segment of the immigrant community has a strong desire for privacy. This can make it difficult to reach these people and connect them with services that could help bridge the digital divide. And many programs ask for personal information that members of this community may not be comfortable sharing.
  • Due to their immigration status and fears of deportation, many immigrants live “underground” and outside established support systems, eschewing programs that might benefit them, like digital equity efforts.
  • Many governmental programs operate only in English. Language access, including in public information campaigns, advertisements, and program enrollment processes, is a driving force in keeping LEP residents from getting digitally connected.

For more see:

An excerpt from Visions of Digital Equity (August 2023) available at

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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