- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2000

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

It's true, of course, that English never has been America's sole language. It certainly isn't now.
The Census Bureau reports 330 languages are used in this country. About 180 of those are native Indian languages, although in certain instances just a few persons still converse in what are dying tribal tongues.
Before the first colonists arrived, about 500 Indian tribes used almost as many languages, and, before America's westward expansion, Spanish dominated in the Southwest. Then too, since early times, there have been linguistic islands like the nation's Little Italys and Chinatowns where English is a seldom heard second language.
Despite that, there is a lingering American conviction that every American should speak English because it is the vital force that binds the nation's diverse population.
Immigration historian Philip Gleason, an emeritus professor at the University of Notre Dame, explains:
"There was a time when the federal government mandated bilingual courses as a way to hurry along the use of English. That involved the view that because of the nature of American society a common language was essential. That has changed. Now it's thought that to impose or require the use of English represents cultural oppression of non-English-speaking groups. There is general conflict about this."
Steve Moore, an immigration analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, expresses the conflict this way:
"Although I'm pro-immigrant, I have an attitude about the multitude of languages. I'm a believer that immigrants should be immersed in English. I'm opposed to bilingual voting ballots and census forms. One of the qualifications of citizenship should be the ability to speak the English language. It's absurd for government to be incurring all these added costs due to the fact that some don't know the language."
Not so absurd, perhaps, in light of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It bars "discrimination, under any program or activity receiving federal assistance, against any person because of his race, color or national origin." The Supreme Court has interpreted that to mean people cannot be denied services because they speak a foreign language.
Not only has the decision eased the urgency for immigrants to learn English, it has spurred widespread use of interpreters and translators throughout the social system. The total cost for such services is unknown. But it's likely to be huge, for interpreters affiliated with the nation's more than 3,000 interpreting-translating firms charge $35 and up per hour and they're working many hours.
Said political scientist James Gimpel, a University of Maryland specialist on immigration and public policy:
"Sure providing interpreting and translating services is costly. That makes it a public policy problem. So does the fact that our information-based economy demands knowledge of English and so many more people than before don't speak it.
"In this strong economy many who can't speak English can find service work. Just let the economy take a dive, as it did in the early 1990s or late 1970s, and you'll see how vulnerable so many of the immigrants are."

A failure to communicate

In the last great wave of migration, which ended in the 1920s, there was a concerted effort to see that immigrants learned English. Marian Smith, historian for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, relates:
"There were lots of English courses then adult 'Americanization programs' offering English and citizenship instruction. Churches, local schools and communities pushed English instruction.
"The federal naturalization service and the education bureau offered classes. The local schools used staff and facilities and enlisted volunteers to help educate immigrants in English. Companies like Ford Motor Company provided English classes. It was considered good business, and all this was very popular. Congress later expanded the effort by creating what was called the National Citizenship Education Program."
Today, said Miss Smith, immigrating adults don't get such extensive help, although it's clear they could use it. A few incidents illustrate the point. They also partly explain why authorities insist more Americans must speak the newcomers' languages.
In Los Angeles, where 120 languages are spoken, the Los Angeles Times reported that a poor Guatemalan immigrant garment worker and mother of three who speaks an unfamiliar Mayan language saw her children placed in foster care. She was accused of child abuse when she couldn't explain how one youngster obtained a bruised eye.
Also in Los Angeles, police patrolling at night picked up a lost Korean man who couldn't determine exactly where he was or explain where he lived. They inadvertently dropped him off far from his home. He was robbed, beaten and died a little later.
And Joanne I. Moore, director of the Washington State Office of Public Defense and editor of the book "Immigrants in Court," relates the case of Santiago Ventura Morales.
The 18-year-old Mr. Morales, a Mexican who spoke neither English nor Spanish but a language called Mixtec, was accused and tried for murdering a fellow migrant. He was represented at trial by an interpreter of Spanish.
The interpreter could not communicate with the defendant and tried to make that clear to the court. The judge refused to accept that not all Mexicans speak Spanish. He proceeded with the trial.
Mr. Morales was found guilty. He served four years of a life sentence, before convincing authorities the language barrier had prevented a fair trial. His case finally was reviewed, and it turned out that another migrant had, in fact, committed the crime.
"Some feel we shouldn't cater to non-English speakers," said Jacqueline Byers of the National Association of Counties. "But," she said, "we're in a situation where the sheer number of immigrants has changed things."

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