- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2005

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — When Afghan immigrant Miram Aioby arrived in America in the early 1980s, he started out in Miami Beach, Fla., where people thought he was Cuban and insisted he speak Spanish.

So, as he roamed the city stocking its vending machines, he learned Spanish and English.

“I had to learn both to survive,” said Mr. Aioby, 47, who now runs an Albany grocery that caters to a mix of South Asians and Bosnians. “After a year, I was pretty good.”

As new immigrants arrive in already diverse neighborhoods, the language they embrace isn’t always English. Honduran cooks learn Mandarin. Mexican clerks learn Korean. Most often, people learn Spanish.

Language specialists say it is a phenomenon that has gone largely unstudied. There are no tidy reports or statistics at hand, but they say the trend could help make America a multilingual nation.

“People say, ‘If you come here, you must learn English,’” said Carolyn Adger, Language in Society director at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. “That’s true. But that’s not enough.”

The government and academic worlds are starting to pay attention. Miss Adger’s colleague, Dora Johnson, said researchers are looking at how people learn third, and even fourth, languages.

Michael Long, director of the University of Maryland’s School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, will oversee the project. He said the federally funded study in part will examine whether people who have been raised speaking a second language can learn additional languages more quickly than “professional” language learners who must pick up another language for their job.

More than 34 million U.S. residents were born outside the United States, according to a report late last year by the Center for Immigration Studies.

Immigrants are primarily learning languages by immersion, bypassing established language schools such as Inlingua or Berlitz, according to language specialists and immigrants. In many instances, immigrants cannot afford the schools. At the Center for Immigrant Education and Training at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, language classes are free.

“You know, we were just complaining because we want the students to practice English outside class,” said John Hunt, an assistant director.

K.C. Williams, who directs adult education at Forest Hills Community Home in Jackson Heights, said the crossover doesn’t surprise her anymore. She said immigrants still stream in for the center’s English classes because they know succeeding in much of today’s America still demands it.

But at the corner store, Miss Williams and the Korean owner get along fine without it.

“She says to me, ‘Your Spanish is very good.’ And I say, ‘So is yours.’”

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