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Should we be willing to speak more languages?

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Donald Trump recently said we have a country where to assimilate, we speak English. He wasn’t wrong, as much as he wasn’t right. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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“Good Morning, my name is Gregory. Would you like me to continue in Spanish?” I had answered my phone without paying attention to caller ID and I was taken aback for a moment, since I was in the throes of researching for this article. Was this some sort of hacker hoax? So I mumbled a “what?” before I realized that this was a marketing call. And the point was made: “I’m willing to speak your language.”

In his eagerness to “connect” poor Gregory made a few mistakes. He presumed that my name indicated proficiency in a language other than English. And he concluded that Spanish must be my language of fluency. The question raised the issue of language and its importance in immigration discussions.

“We have a country where to assimilate we have to speak English … this is a country where we speak English not Spanish,” said Donald Trump heatedly during a presidential debate. He wasn’t wrong, as much as he wasn’t right. Speaking English goes the distance toward integration. But it doesn’t mean that one has to speak “only” English.

Studies have shown that being bilingual or being fluent in multiple languages is a skill that is directly linked to brain development. Bilingual people are faster problem solvers and are better at multitasking.

But English is the language of opportunity. In my own life, this has played out in defining ways.

Adrienne Pon, the executive director at the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigration Affairs in San Francisco, clearly sees the value in English learning for immigrants. “We look at language access and English acquisition as keys to civic engagement and full, meaningful participation for immigrants and for all individuals for whom English is not the primary language. This is essential for public safety, emergencies and disasters,” she said.

Indeed, that seems evident. Interestingly, San Francisco spent $8,353,796 in 2015 to reach out to non-English speaking residents. As per the February 2016 Annual Compliance Report on the OCEIA website, this was spent towards hiring and retaining bilingual employees, and providing translation and interpretation services.

Is this money well spent?

“We think this is a good investment since 46 percent of The City’s population speak languages other than English at home. This is essential to building trust — local municipalities must be committed to effectively communicating with and serving all their residents, not just some,” Pon responded.

Most recent data shows that there are 352,742 residents of San Francisco who speak other than English at home and 176,629 of this group speak English “less than very well.” The largest immigrant language demographic in this less than proficient English-speaking category is Chinese (94,744) followed by Spanish (38,494).

So I decided to walk down Kearny Street at the edge of Chinatown and tried to engage several passersby in the English language integration discussion.

Jia Ling, a student, said in her own broken English that the solution was simple: because this is America and if you want to work and study here, you must learn English.

I moved on and stopped at a man seated on a low stool strumming what looked like a Chinese mandolin. He pointed to his lips and shook his head, “no English, no English.” Music is perhaps the language that he speaks most effectively, I thought.

I then stopped Maria Cariaso, a young mother who was walking with her two children. “I came from the Philippines and learned English there,” she said. “Here I insist that my kids learn Spanish in school and I’m happy to say that they are bilingual.”

One young gentleman who told me his name was Tirso Jasso was unloading boxes outside a store and laughed at the question, “Of course, it is important to know English,” he said, “I speak Spanish, and can I do without knowing English? Sometimes I can get away with it, but not all the time.”

And that’s the point. It is not enough to get away with speaking other languages.

Not knowing how to speak English is a huge handicap, much like any physical, mental or emotional one. Non-English speakers must find ways to overcome the hardships that it brings with it. Being unable to speak the language of the country one resides in creates ethnic insularity and an inward focus that prevents assimilation. Moreover, lack of English knowledge limits participation in the social and political discourses of our community. So in that sense I do believe that Trump is partially right.

So, is The City doing enough to enable our non-English speakers gain proficiency in English? Are there enough free or subsidized adult English learning classes being offered in immigrant neighborhoods?

When I asked Adrienne Pon what her office was doing to promote English language learning, the answer was not exactly clear. “In San Francisco, quite a bit is being done. We look at language access and English acquisition as keys to civic engagement, full and meaningful participation, and economic empowerment,” she answered.

I believe that a good chunk of the money that OCEIA spends toward language access should be spent in enabling and enhancing English proficiency among immigrants.

And that may not be the case today.

Jaya Padmanabhan is the editor of India Currents, www.indiacurrents.com. She can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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