Academic journal article Library Technology Reports

Chapter 4: Computer Technology and Non-English Speaking Patrons

Academic journal article Library Technology Reports

Chapter 4: Computer Technology and Non-English Speaking Patrons

Article excerpt

North America and the Web--Canada leads in ESL

Until recently the United States viewed itself as an English-speaking nation and neglected to embrace the multicultural aspects that made this country great.

This tendency to recognize English as the only acceptable language is evidenced by the trend of information providers and mass media outlets, including the Internet, to present information and other communications solely in the English language.

North America, as a whole, is realizing that a new wave of immigrants, as well as exchange students, visitors, and bilingual citizens, are part of the community.

Libraries are realizing they must reprise the role they played during the early 20th century: helping non-English speaking patrons garner information to enable them to prosper.

North America is changing and so is the Web. Although English-speaking Internet users are still the majority online, many users also are browsers from Japan, China, and Spanish-speaking countries. Global Reach, a marketing company, projects that non-English speaking users will dominate the Web by a ratio of 2 to 1 by 2005.

The biggest growth areas include surfers who are Chinese- and Spanish-speakers. (1) Within the next few years expect to see an abundance of information in languages other than English.

Libraries can prepare themselves and their patrons for this shift by making their libraries accessible for today's non-English-speaking users.

The new gateways

In the 1900s, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Baltimore were known as gateway cities for immigrants wishing to make their fortunes in the New World. Although a few of the long-established immigrant destinations such as Chicago and New York are still viable ports, most immigrants are settling elsewhere.

According to the Brookings Institute, 13 states (primarily those in the West and Southeast) saw foreign-born growth rates more than double the national average in the 90s. These states included Colorado, Georgia, Nevada, and North Carolina. And today's immigrants are living in the suburbs rather than cities.

Some cities, such as Las Vegas; Atlanta; Dallas; Washington, D.C.; Salt Lake City; the Twin Cities; and Raleigh-Durham (N.C.), are watching their foreign-born populations explode. Atlanta saw its immigrant population increase 817% and Raleigh-Durham saw an increase of 709% over two decades. In Canada, British Columbia is becoming a haven for highly educated foreign professionals seeking a new home.

The Brookings Institute has done an excellent study of immigration settlement trends in the United States. Researchers provide tract maps of the cities with a significant number of immigrants, which can be used as a starting point to evaluate if the library's neighborhood is witnessing an immigration wave.

Immigration wave challenges libraries

Multilingual patron populations present new challenges for libraries. They are not bound by limitations of print media. Electronic information has the ability to make learning English, studying for citizenship tests, and completing school assignments achievable. To facilitate access to computers and electronic information, libraries in North America need to offer non-English-speaking patrons equipment and services.

The numbers

The U.S. 2000 Census reports that 47 million people in the USA (18% of the population over 5 years old) spoke "a language other than English" at home. (2) The percentage of people in this category grew by 47% since the 1990 census.

More than a half million speakers of these non-English languages are at home in the United States: Spanish, Chinese, French, German, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Italian, Korean, Russian, Polish, Arabic, and Portuguese.

"While the population aged 5 and over grew by one fourth from 1980 to 2000, the number who spoke a language other than English at home more than doubled. …

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