America is an English-speaking nation. At least technically.
It has become hard to think of the country that way now that 300 languages are spoken in the United States and more and more immigrants, speaking diverse languages, are demanding that U.S. society deal with them in their native tongues.
It’s a demand the nation’s law supports.
As a consequence, there has been a little-understood but important shift in the way courts, hospitals, local governments and especially schools handle the influx into the country of multitudes speaking myriad languages. As some see it, the shift has created a sort of policy time bomb set to explode should the U.S. economy weaken.
Significantly, the changes are reducing the prevalence and primacy of English in American life and culture. More than ever, modern America is multilingual.
“What’s happening cuts right to cherished American notions like assimilation. And fair treatment for all,” said Martin Ford, head of programs at the Maryland Office of New Americans, a Baltimore refugee resettlement agency.
“On the one hand,” he continues, “everyone should have equal access to social services and medical care. On the other, how can that be done in a way that won’t break the bank for a hospital that has patients who speak Wolof, Tswana, Hmong and Queche?”
(Wolof is the language of Senegal; Tswana, a Bantu language used in Botswana; Hmong, a Laotian tongue, and Queche, a Mayan language of Guatemala.)
Consider some of the signs of “what’s happening”:
Immigrant communities in some states have become so large and insular that greater numbers of people find no need to learn English. Miami’s Little Havana is a prime example.
The most recent census figures are dated and clearly understate the current situation. Still, they show that 10 years ago, 31,651,936 U.S. residents roughly a seventh of the population at the time spoke “a language other than English at home.” Of those, 17,339,000 spoke Spanish and 7,741,259 were “linguistically isolated,” meaning they lived in households where no one over the age of 14 spoke English.
Ethnic television programming, the Internet and special radios that receive round-the-clock satellite transmission of ethnic broadcasts help lessen the urgency to learn English.
The special radios are manufactured overseas and are sold exclusively to members of ethnic minorities at stores serving specific ethnic groups. The programming mostly originates on the West Coast, and is rebroadcast through such local ethic stations as the District of Columbia’s Radio Sedaye-Iran.
School systems across the land, which once insisted that students learn English, have adopted a dual-language approach, otherwise called “two-way bilingual,” “dual immersion education,” or “biliteracy.” Under that approach, students study all subjects except English in their native language, and avoid being immersed in English. As Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said, “Bilingual … programs are working well in many states toward this goal of biliteracy.”
There has been a widely reported surge in the growth of special ethnic language schools teaching Persian, Hindi, Mandarin, Korean, Farsi, Czech and other languages to immigrant youths. There are more than 40 such schools in the Washington area alone. They offer a way for immigrant parents to instill in their youngsters the parents’ native culture and traditions while keeping their offspring from total assimilation into U.S. culture.
Many of the nearly 1,000,000 newcomers who legally enter the nation each year and an unknown number among the estimated 300,000 illegal aliens find it exceptionally difficult to learn English because they can’t read or write in even their native language.
Legal-aid agencies increasingly are suing government social service agencies, charging that non-English speaking persons are denied job training and services because they can’t speak English. The typical charge: discrimination based on national origin.
Example: Just months ago, four legal-aid agencies sued Los Angeles County’s Public Social Services, contending persons who don’t speak English are discriminated against in the welfare-to-work program. The language barrier prevents non-English speakers from succeeding in education sessions intended to wean them from federal assistance, the suits argue.
There is a boom in interpreting and translating services. Allied Business Intelligence, a communications research organization, says the “language translation market” will grow from $11 billion in 1999 to $20 billion in 2004. Membership in just one professional group, the American Translators Association, has doubled to 7,200 in the past eight years. Yet courts, schools, government agencies and the translation services themselves all assert there is a serious interpreter shortage.
Police departments, hospitals, courts and other government agencies report they’re giving preference in hiring to multilingual persons because so much of their work involves dealing with those who don’t speak English. In California, for instance, the Santa Ana Police Department is hiring only persons who speak two languages and officials of Inova Fairfax Hospital, among others, say they are struggling to find nurses and technicians who speak Spanish, Korean and Middle Eastern languages.
The immersion debate
A failure to communicate