Emphasis on English; Assimilation Seen as Vital for Immigrants' Success

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 13, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Emphasis on English; Assimilation Seen as Vital for Immigrants' Success

Byline: S.A. Miller and Jon Ward, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Terri Rychlak grew up in Baltimore's Fells Point section and has seen her neighborhood of Polish immigrants become home to a growing Hispanic community.

Miss Rychlak says she enjoys the new cultural diversity of the area, where shops and restaurants increasingly cater to Ecuadorean and Salvadoran immigrants. But she sometimes is frustrated by her new neighbors' inability or unwillingness to learn English - which her grandparents had to master when they emigrated from Poland.

"I'm not prejudiced, but if you're here, speak English," says Miss Rychlak, 39, a bartender at the Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point. "If I went to Ecuador or El Salvador, I'd speak their language."

Miss Rychlak's sentiments are common among older immigrant groups who made learning English a priority in adapting to American life. They view with skepticism efforts to assimilate new immigrants without emphasizing a mastery of the English language.

Last year, the District began implementing a new law that requires written translations of city documents and interpreters at most agencies for a variety of foreign languages. Other local jurisdictions are following suit.

Supporters of such measures say they provide critical information to residents in an easily understandable form and help new immigrants quickly adjust to American government.

"It certainly helps them learn life in the United States quicker, and I think that is essential," says Will Campos, who last year became the first Hispanic elected to the Prince George's County Council. "As an immigrant, I can tell you English is one of the hardest languages to learn."

Critics say such endeavors are unnecessarily costly, delay immigrants' assimilation and encourage the development of ethnic enclaves that do not participate in the mainstream of American life.

"What we need to focus on is getting people to be Americans," says Rob D. Toonkel, spokesman for U.S. English Inc., which has lobbied Congress to make English the official language of the United States since 1983.

"If you speak Croatian or Hindi, you should also speak English," Mr. Toonkel says. "[A multilingual approach] certainly places one language above another when neither is the predominant language of this country."

Debates rage over how these efforts will affect the future economic, educational and social development of immigrants and the neighborhoods where they reside, even as the U.S. population - both foreign- and native-born - continues to expand.

The rate of increase in the number of those who don't speak English in the United States has far outpaced the growth of the general population since 1990, population statistics show.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the general population grew by 13 percent between the 1990 and 2000 censuses - from 248 million to 281 million. The number of people who speak English "not well" or "not at all" grew by 65 percent - from 6.67 million to 11 million - during the same period.

Those who don't speak English accounted for 2.7 percent of the U.S. population in 1990 and 3.9 percent in 2000.

Locally, the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area has seen its population of residents who speak English "not well" or "not at all" expand from 117,702 in 1990 to 213,260 in 2000 - an 81 percent increase, according to the Census Bureau.

Those who don't speak English made up 2.2 percent of the Baltimore-Washington area's 5.25 million residents in 1990 and 3.5 percent of its 6 million residents in 2000.

"The rate of growth of immigrants in the city who are limited in English is rampant," says Gustavo Velasquez, director of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams' Office of Latino Affairs.

Ethnic enclaves

U.S. cities long have featured areas such as Chinatown in the District and Little Italy in Baltimore, where English has been the No.

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