Labor, Language

I was at a wedding this weekend and was telling some relatives how I live in Jackson Heights, Queens where I have language difficulties because I don’t speak Spanish. Most of my neighbors are from Columbia or Ecuador. Russian, Chinese, Bengali, Korean and a host of other languages can be heard in my neighborhood — but Spanish is definitely the dominant language. I had friends visiting from Taiwan who were frustrated that despite all their hard work learning English, they were still unable to communicate with some people in my neighborhood. It is worse for me because everyone thinks I look like someone who should speak Spanish. I even had someone once run 50 yards on a subway platform to ask me directions in Spanish because they thought I would be able to help them. I wish I could! Anyway, after recounting this story to my family, they asked the obvious question:** Why don’t these people learn English?**

Well, most of their kids do speak English. It is the adults who come over and have to work long hours, or spend their days at home taking care of the kids, who don’t speak English. For some, no doubt, the answer is that they don’t have to. Like some Americans I knew in Taiwan who’d lived in the country for over five years and never learned more than a couple of words of Chinese, they can live in Jackson Heights and do almost everything in Spanish. And, like those Americans, some probably plan to go back home once they’ve saved up some money or gotten their kids educated. But there are many more who want to learn English and simply don’t have the time or the money.

I have a friend who has taught English to immigrants for many years. One of the schools he used to work at closed down because of government cutbacks. The government wants people to rush out and get a low end job, rather than learn enough English to contribute usefully to the economy. We have people who have useful skills, such as auto mechanics, or even doctors, who are stuck driving limos and flipping burgers because of their limited English skills.

But even worse, for many immigrants, lack of proper English means that they can’t negotiate the bureaucracy necessary to access government services they would otherwise qualify for. A recent Village Voice article describes one woman who was turned down for emergency medicaid for her son because of language difficulties:

Dealing with the language barrier at government bureaucracies was a key issue raised by immigrant families back in 1997 when Make the Road began organizing in Bushwick, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Andrew Friedman, a Brooklyn-born co-founder of the group, said most initial members had plans or ambitions to learn English, but those dreams were often thwarted or delayed by the difficulty in gaining access to language classes.

According to the New York Immigration Coalition, available English language classes in the city meet just 5 percent of the need. “In the national debate, we spend a lot of time being mad at immigrants for not speaking English, expecting them, as if by magic, to be able to go out and learn a new language while raising a family and holding down a job,” said coalition director Margie McHugh. Assisting those who want to learn, she said, “is the most important thing our government could and should be doing as part of a proactive strategy.”

(Thanks to Languagehat for the link!)