Thursday, September 13, 2007

More Californians Renouncing English at Home

Today's Los Angeles Times reports on data from the Census Bureau indicating that 43 percent of those in California, and 53 percent in Los Angeles County, speak a language other than English at home:

Bienvenidos. Huan ying. Dobro pozhalovat.

In California, "welcome" is more of an international affair than ever -- with nearly 43% of residents speaking a language other than English at home, according to data released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau. The trend was even more pronounced in Los Angeles, where more than 53% of residents speak another language at home.

Spanish is by far the most common, but Californians also converse in Korean, Thai, Russian, Hmong, Armenian and dozens of other languages.

The census numbers are likely to fuel a decades-long debate in California over immigrants continuing to use their native tongue. There have been battles over bilingual education, foreign-language ballots and English-only restrictions on business signs.

While immigration is the driving force for the state's linguistic diversity, experts said people often speak another language out of choice rather than necessity.

Some do so to get ahead professionally, while others want to maintain connections with their homelands.
The article provides this interesting example of the trend:

Yadira Quezada, 30, speaks mostly English at work, where she coordinates an after-school program for elementary students in Los Angeles.

But at home, she speaks only Spanish. She and her husband are fluent in English, but they don't want their four sons to lose their Spanish or to sound like "gringos" when they speak it.
There may be advantages to such practices, although the article notes unfavorable trends associated with insufficient language assimilation:

The downside is that many people who speak other languages at home are not proficient in English -- making them more likely to earn low wages and live in poor neighborhoods....

Among people living below the poverty line, 56% speak a language other than English in the home, compared with 41% for those above the poverty line, according to the census report.

"Isolation is problematic," said Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, chairman of UCLA's Department of Asian American Studies. "While it reflects the strong ties to the home country, it also suggests that folks in this situation are inherently more cut off from society and less able to participate and take advantage of opportunities here."

And the isolation is also felt by some English speakers living in areas where foreign languages are prevalent. Dental office administrator Mia Bonavita, 39, recently moved from San Diego to Monterey Park, where business at many stores is done in Chinese. Bonavita says the language barrier is difficult.

"I feel like an outsider," she said. "It's difficult to get to know your neighbors."

The linguistic diversity also affects the schools, where educators struggle to meet students' needs.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, there are more than 265,000 English learners who speak 91 languages. The district has a special translation unit, but must rely on parents and community members for some languages.

Southern California has numerous ethnic enclaves where speaking English is not a necessity, including parts of the San Gabriel Valley, Little Saigon, East L.A. and Koreatown. And some residents there say the lack of English hasn't diminished their lives.
I've written much on immigration issues and cultural assimilation.

My main concerns - amid our recent national immigration debate - have focused on illegal immigration (border lawlessness and the entitlement culture of immigrant rights activists) and threats from multiculturalism to the maintenance of a common national identity.

On the latter, I agree with
Samuel Huntington, when he writes about the "Hispanic challenge":

The extent and nature of this [late-20th century] immigration differ fundamentally from those of previous immigration, and the assimilation successes of the past are unlikely to be duplicated with the contemporary flood of immigrants from Latin America. This reality poses a fundamental question: Will the United States remain a country with a single national language and a core Anglo-Protestant culture? By ignoring this question, Americans acquiesce to their eventual transformation into two peoples with two cultures (Anglo and Hispanic) and two languages (English and Spanish).
I have tremendous respect for ethnic diveristy (and I live it daily in my classrooms and neighborhoods).

Yet, I remain convinced - like Huntington - that America's many strengths are rooted in the nation's Anglo-Protestant cultural heritage. That heritage is a powerful glue binding our disparate ethnic enclaves into one society, but at some point a fabric frays, and the binds that hold together may fail.

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