Not At Home With English

Anna Gorman and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, September 13, 2007

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.

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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 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.

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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.

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Some smaller Southern California communities recorded even higher percentages than Los Angeles, including East L.A. (91%), El Monte (83%), Santa Ana (83%), Alhambra (71%), Oxnard (67%), Garden Grove (67%) and Glendale (64%). The statewide percentage of 43% is up slightly from data from a few years ago.

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