[EDLING:386] Report Says Calif. is Linguistically Diverse

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Sep 20 12:57:44 UTC 2007

Forwarded from edling at ccat.sas.upenn.edu


Philadelphia Inquirer, September 16, 2007

In L.A., 53% speak a foreign language at home.

By Anna Gorman and David Pierson
Los Angeles Times

Bienvenidos. Whan young. Dobro pozhalovat.

In California, "welcome" is more of an international affair than ever, with
nearly 43 percent of residents speaking a language other than English at
home, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau.  The trend was
even more pronounced in Los Angeles, where more than 53 percent 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. Nationwide,
almost 20 percent of people older than age 5 spoke a language other than
English at home in 2006.

The census numbers are likely to fuel a debate that has been going on in
California for decades over immigrants speaking English vs. 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.

"In this century, there's going to be so much interaction with China,
economically, socially and culturally," said Lisa Yang, a Monterey Park,
Calif., real estate who insists on speaking Mandarin with her
U.S.-borndaughter Melissa Hsu, even on the phone. 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.

"When they say something in English, we act like we don't understand,"
said. "We say, 'No entiendo [I don't understand you].'  " Still, she
acknowledges the bilingual world her family has chosen - mostly English
during work and school, mostly Spanish at home - can be confusing. "I am
thinking in English and Spanish at the same
time," she said. Because California has strong ties to Asia and Latin
America, some language  experts believe the loyalty to native tongues has

"It really represents huge assets for California in
the global economy," said
Randy Capps, senior research associate at the Urban
Institute, a think tank in

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, Capps said.

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

"Isolation is problematic," Lane Ryo Hirabayashi,
chair of the University of
California, Los Angeles' 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."

The isolation also is felt by some English speakers
living in areas where
foreign languages are prevalent. Mia Bonavita, a
dental office administrator,
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

The linguistic diversity also affects the schools,
where educators struggle to
meet students' needs. In the Los Angeles Unified
School District, for example,
more than 265,000 English learners speak 91 languages.
The district has a
special translation unit, but it 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. Some residents there say the lack
of English hasn't
diminished their lives.

Some smaller Southern California communities recorded
even higher percentages
than Los Angeles, including East L.A. (90 percent), El
Monte (83 percent),
Santa Ana (82 percent), Alhambra (70 percent), Oxnard
(67 percent), Garden
Grove (67 percent), and Glendale (64 percent). (The
statewide percentage of 43
percent is up slightly from data taken a few years

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Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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