- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

Terri Rychlak grew up in Baltimore’s Fells Point section and has seen her neighborhood of Polish immigrants become home to a growing Hispanic community.

Miss Rychlak says she enjoys the new cultural diversity of the area, where shops and restaurants increasingly cater to Ecuadorean and Salvadoran immigrants. But she sometimes is frustrated by her new neighbors’ inability or unwillingness to learn English — which her grandparents had to master when they emigrated from Poland.

“I’m not prejudiced, but if you’re here, speak English,” says Miss Rychlak, 39, a bartender at the Cat’s Eye Pub in Fells Point. “If I went to Ecuador or El Salvador, I’d speak their language.”

Miss Rychlak’s sentiments are common among older immigrant groups who made learning English a priority in adapting to American life. They view with skepticism efforts to assimilate new immigrants without emphasizing a mastery of the English language.

Last year, the District began implementing a new law that requires written translations of city documents and interpreters at most agencies for a variety of foreign languages. Other local jurisdictions are following suit.

Supporters of such measures say they provide critical information to residents in an easily understandable form and help new immigrants quickly adjust to American government.

“It certainly helps them learn life in the United States quicker, and I think that is essential,” says Will Campos, who last year became the first Hispanic elected to the Prince George’s County Council. “As an immigrant, I can tell you English is one of the hardest languages to learn.”

Critics say such endeavors are unnecessarily costly, delay immigrants’ assimilation and encourage the development of ethnic enclaves that do not participate in the mainstream of American life.

“What we need to focus on is getting people to be Americans,” says Rob D. Toonkel, spokesman for U.S. English Inc., which has lobbied Congress to make English the official language of the United States since 1983.

“If you speak Croatian or Hindi, you should also speak English,” Mr. Toonkel says. “[A multilingual approach] certainly places one language above another when neither is the predominant language of this country.”

Debates rage over how these efforts will affect the future economic, educational and social development of immigrants and the neighborhoods where they reside, even as the U.S. population — both foreign- and native-born — continues to expand.

The rate of increase in the number of those who don’t speak English in the United States has far outpaced the growth of the general population since 1990, population statistics show.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the general population grew by 13 percent between the 1990 and 2000 censuses — from 248 million to 281 million. The number of people who speak English “not well” or “not at all” grew by 65 percent — from 6.67 million to 11 million — during the same period.

Those who don’t speak English accounted for 2.7 percent of the U.S. population in 1990 and 3.9 percent in 2000.

Locally, the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area has seen its population of residents who speak English “not well” or “not at all” expand from 117,702 in 1990 to 213,260 in 2000 — an 81 percent increase, according to the Census Bureau.

Those who don’t speak English made up 2.2 percent of the Baltimore-Washington area’s 5.25 million residents in 1990 and 3.5 percent of its 6 million residents in 2000.

“The rate of growth of immigrants in the city who are limited in English is rampant,” says Gustavo Velasquez, director of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ Office of Latino Affairs.

Ethnic enclaves

U.S. cities long have featured areas such as Chinatown in the District and Little Italy in Baltimore, where English has been the No. 2 language, where shop signs offer information in Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Russian. But in past decades, residents of those ethnic enclaves say they also dedicated themselves to learning English.

“Back then, everyone wanted to assimilate,” Natasha Tseytlin says of having to master English when she and her family emigrated from Minsk, Belarus, in 1979.

Learning English was “imperative” because “everything was in English,” Miss Tseytlin said as she shopped at Euro Deli, which caters to the burgeoning community of Russian immigrants in Baltimore County’s Owings Mills area.

The 33-year-old lawyer didn’t have to look further than the Euro Deli’s menu board, written in Russian, and counter help who speak only Russian to see that English is less important for new immigrants.

“There is a minimal need to speak English,” Miss Tseytlin said. “There is a big Russian community, and everybody speaks Russian, and everything is in Russian. You can work in a Russian store, deal with Russian clientele.”

Paul Lazzati, who works in a restaurant in Baltimore’s Little Italy, where his immigrant grandfather settled in 1915, also says newcomers don’t seem to have the same desire to assimilate.

“Back then, they were God-fearing about learning English, because that’s what you had to do if you wanted to be someone,” says Mr. Lazzati, 40.

He said it is now easier for him to learn some Spanish than to get the Hispanic busboys and dishwashers to communicate in English.

“There are still people who are reluctant to speak the [English] language until they get their bearings,” he says. “They stick around people of their own language.”

Frustration over not being able to communicate with a fast-food worker prompted Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer last May to publicly complain about how the employee’s inability to speak English compromised service at the restaurant.

“I think it’s about time we started thinking about the people who are coming into our country, learn what English is all about,” Mr. Schaefer said during a Board of Public Works meeting. “I don’t want to adjust to another language. This is the United States. I think they ought to adjust to us.”

His comments drew criticism from immigrant-advocacy groups, among others, but also evoked support from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. Mr. Ehrlich called multiculturalism “bunk” and “crap.”

Multilingual efforts face challenges by the sheer number of foreign-language speakers in the country.

According to a new report by the U.S. English Foundation, more than 322 languages are spoken in America: The 10 most-used in order are English, Spanish, French, Chinese, German, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Italian, Korean and Russian.

At least 79 languages are spoken in the District, at least 96 are spoken in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and at least 92 are spoken in Fairfax and Arlington counties, according to the U.S. English Foundation report, which is based on data from the 2000 census.

The U.S. English Foundation is a nonprofit research and education group that is separate from U.S. English Inc.


Government action

In response to the growth in the number of those who don’t speak English in the District, Mayor Anthony A. Williams in April signed into law the Language Access Act of 2004 that requires written translations of all “vital documents” and interpreters at most agencies for any foreign language spoken by at least 500 residents.

The Language Access Act provides translation and interpretation services for about 38,000 city residents who do not speak or read English well at a cost of about $440,000 a year. The new law will make city government documents available in Spanish, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese and Ethiopian Amharic.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has formed the Limited English Proficiency Group, a task force of representatives from every county agency who are organizing translated materials for those who don’t speak English.

The task force is translating about 940 county documents into Cambodian, Chinese, Farsi, French, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese.

“It’s a huge effort by the county to figure out how to provide better service to our limited-English-proficiency customers,” county spokeswoman Esther Bowring says.

An estimate of the program’s cost was not immediately available.

Northern Virginia jurisdictions are at different points in their efforts to make government materials more accessible to those who don’t speak English.

The Arlington County’s Web site, www.co.arlington.va.us, has had a direct link to a Spanish-language version of the site for more than a year. Hispanics account for nearly 20 percent of the county’s population.

Ethiopians make up 3 percent of the county population, but Spanish is the only language that the local government is working to integrate into its materials.

In September, Arlington hired Serena Ingre-Martinez, an Ecuadorean immigrant, to fill a new position as liaison to the growing number of Spanish-language media outlets.

“It’s an effort to bridge that communication gap,” she said. “A lot of the recent immigrants come here, and they don’t have the language ability, so to them having information in their own language is critical for them to connect to the mainstream society.”

Ms. Ingre-Martinez, 28, could not speak English when she came to the United States 12 years ago.

Fairfax County — the area’s most populous and diverse jurisdiction — provides some documents in different languages, but hasn’t yet implemented a comprehensive translation-and-interpretation effort.

“You probably need to be able to read English to use the Web site [www.co.fairfax.va.us],” county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald says.

The future of multilingual programs is not clear — here and abroad. The Associated Press reported last month that the European Union has reduced from 20 to three the number of languages in which press conferences will be translated. EU officials said the rising cost of translating materials drove the decision.

In Maryland, a House of Delegates committee is considering a bill that would make English the official language of state government. The General Assembly has approved such legislation twice before, but those bills were both vetoed, including once, ironically enough, by Mr. Schaefer during his stint as governor.

Testifying before the Maryland House panel last week, U.S. English Chairman Mauro E. Mujica noted that 27 states — including Virginia, California and Arizona — have designated English as the official language of state government.

“We need to have a language in common that unites all of us together,” said Mr. Mujica, an architect who emigrated from Chile and is now a U.S. citizen. “It is good to speak my language, but a common language allows diversity to function.”

Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, Montgomery Democrat, issued a statement calling the bill an “offensive and harmful proposal.”

“It is very important that our communities come together to demonstrate our opposition to measures that would severely limit the rights and freedoms of all immigrants in Maryland,” Miss Gutierrez said. “We must not let Maryland become another Virginia or Arizona, where the civil rights of foreign-born workers, residents and citizens are violated every day.”

U.S. Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, has introduction a bill in the House that would require the federal government to conduct business in English, but would not put restrictions on languages spoken or on the private sector. A similar bill passed the House in 1996 but was defeated in the Senate.

English second?

Local governments’ multilingual approaches do not aim to minimize the importance of mastering English in participating in the American way of life, says Mr. Velasquez, the District’s director of Latino Affairs.

“Every immigrant will say English is the most important thing in their lives. They can’t prosper without it,” he says.

But learning English can be difficult and time-consuming, especially for older immigrants who are working more than one job, says Amarilis Caceres, who emigrated illegally from Guatemala 16 years ago speaking no English and has since become a U.S. citizen.

“When they are over 30 or 35, they say, ‘Oh, I am too old,’” says Miss Caceres, 32, the owner of a beauty salon in Columbia Heights.

The language gap is widest among Hispanic immigrants, though first-generation Asians are sometimes slow to learn English, says Elisha Pulivarti, executive director of the Maryland Governor’s Office for Asian-Pacific American Affairs. However, most first-generation parents in Asian-American families insist that their children learn English.

“Our children are [among] the top students in public schools,” Mr. Pulivarti says. “It shows that they are trying to assimilate into America.”

Tim Cheng, manager of New Asia Market in Upper Potomac, says many of his employees are recent arrivals from China who do not speak English. They make an effort to learn the language and make sure their children become fluent.

“They want the next generation to be as good as most Americans,” says Mr. Cheng, a native of Singapore who became a U.S. citizen after moving here more than two decades ago. “They want their kids to adapt to American Life.”

Sandy Deng, director of Asian-American LEAD (Leadership, Empowerment and Development) in Columbia Heights, estimates that 30 percent of Vietnamese immigrants in the District speak English.

“Of course, they want to learn English because that will help them get a better job,” she says. “They have a desire, but they don’t think they can do it. It’s an intimidating task.”

Jack Crosby, the chef at the Kiss Cafe in Fells Point, praises the area’s new Hispanic residents. “Most of them, their work ethic is outstanding,” he says.

And as they are adjusting to being in America, he and his staff — as well as other restaurateurs — are adjusting to them.

“It’s rule number two in every kitchen: You have to learn Spanish,” Mr. Crosby says.

• Robert Redding Jr. contributed to this report.

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