Thursday, January 20, 2005

Babel on the Hudson

Just in time for President Bush's second inauguration comes an article in yesterday's New York Times [registration required], which charts the decline in spoken English in the nation's largest city. According to the Times, between 1990 and 2000, the number of adults in New York City who have "a problem speaking English" (read: barely or not at all) jumped by 30 percent to 1.5 million, out of a total city population of just under 8 million. Not surprisingly, immigrant groups with the largest numbers and birth rates comprise the majority of people who cannot speak English, especially Dominican, Mexican and Chinese immigrants, who tend to live in tight-knit communties surrounded by few others who speak English. The article failed to note that many of these communities are served by ethnic language news papers, radio and TV stations, that cater to those who cannot speak English (and thus lower any pressure for them to learn it).
In the migrations before 1965, most newcomers spoke European languages. But what is striking about the current generation of immigrants is the vast range of the tongues they use on the city's streets, adding difficulties in education, business and the minutiae of daily life and making the need for English as a common language all the more urgent.

"The earlier waves of Southern and Eastern Europeans taht dominated immigration at the turn of the 20th century spoke many languages, [Joseph Salvo, a New York City demographer] said. "But the level of language diversity today far surpasses anything we have seen in the city's history."

Of those who do not speak English, 51 percent speak Spanish at home, 13 percent speak Chinese, 8 percent Russian, 4 percent French including Creole, 3 percent Korean, 3 percent Italian and 2 percent Polish, with other langauges accounting for 16 percent - a range of 175 to 200 languages.
Anyone who has walked through New York's many neighborhoods in recent years can attest to this. In many places in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and even parts Manhattan itself, one can walk for many crowded blocks without hearing a word of English spoken.
Some of Mr. Salvo's most striking figures relate to the high immigrant share of the of the city's 121,000 births in 2000. The top three immigrant groups alone account for one out of every six births, he said: 8,940 births to women from the Dominican Republic, 6,140 births to women from Mexico, and 5,680 to women from China. In thes same groups, 70 percent, 76 percent and 75 percent respectively report that they speak English less than "very well," a response that means real difficulty with the language census studies show.
The article admitted that "many of the city's new immigrant parents are here illegally," which makes it difficult for them to receive education resources to train them in English, even though "city agencies try to maintain an environment of 'don't ask, don't tell'," in regard to immigration status.

The increasing inability of New Yorkers to communicate with each other is yet another consequence of America's failure to control its borders. Worse, New York's problem is hardly unique, as even a brief visit to Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit or Denver will readily show. Those who dismissed the idea that unbridled immigration represents a real problem, tend to sweep aside such evidence issuing the tired arguments that America has seen this before and that immigrants will assimilate and learn English, eventually.

But the conditions of the early 20th century are not the same that prevail in the early 21st. The larger that non-English speaking communities grow, the greater the inertia against learning English at all. If an immigrant can function within his ethnic neighborhoods without ever once speaking English, then why bother to learn it at all? Especially, if the broader society goes out of its way to see that he doesn't need to by issuing government forms in his languages, and if businesses conduct business in his language (ATMs, Web sites, phone systems, catalogs, etc.). Today, Spanish language only radio and TV stations claim an increasing proportion of listeners/viewers in most major US city markets. This situation will only worsen as the numbers of fresh immigrants grow, since the increased numbers will bring more political pressure to have services provided in their language, further erroding the need for them to learn English. Multilingual societies do not have a great track record of survival, nor do countries that lose control of their borders.

President Bush, busy donning his inaugural tuxedo, probably didn't see the New York Times article. But even if he did, he probably doesn't care. As governor of Texas, and as president, Mr. Bush has proudly displayed both his ability to speak Spanish and his own difficulties with English. Moreover, he has made it explicitly clear that no effort will be made to secure the borders and reduce illegal immigration on his watch. So expect this situation to worsen over the next four years, with increasinly tragic consequences for American culture.


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