LOS ANGELES—As the number of foreign-born residents has increased — from 9.6 million in 1970 to 25.8 million in 1997 — there has been a growing trend to provide government services to newcomers in their native languages rather than in English.

Using Spanish (and, to a lesser extent, other languages) to teach newcomer students history and math became widespread in the ’70s. Although sizable majorities in California and Arizona recently voted in referendums to outlaw bilingual education, very few elected officials of either party have come out against it.

The trend toward bilingualism has recently grown to include other government services besides education. Last August, former President Clinton issued Executive Order 13166, which, in effect, created a new civil right for those with “Limited English Proficiency.”

It requires federal and state agencies, along with federal contractors in the private sector, to take what the Office of Civil Rights believes are “reasonable steps” to serve those with poor English skills in their native tongues. A Bush Administration spokesman said on May 4 that the new president had no plans at present to overturn this Clinton initiative.

Two question about bilingualism that are seldom asked are:

Q1. Do non-English speakers want to receive government services in their native language?

Q2. Is not providing official help in their native tongue deterring needed immigrants from coming to America?

A1. There has been substantial controversy over whether immigrants want to be catered to in their own languages. Some argue that the great majority of new arrivals want the “tough love” of being forced to learn English.

First, it can be quite difficult to find out the true feelings of people who don’t speak your language. This is especially true for non-Spanish speakers, as there are several hundred other languages spoken in the United States.

Most of the small amount of polling done on the general topic has been of Hispanics’ views of bilingual education. Views on Executive Order 13166 have not yet been widely surveyed.

Moreover, media outlets have their own financial biases as well. The Spanish-language media have been ardent defenders of bilingualism. A. Jerrold Perenchio owns the leading Spanish-language TV network, Univision. This Italian-American Republican billionaire gave $1.5 million to the campaign to defeat Ron Unz’s 1998 Proposition 227 initiative banning bilingual schooling in California. Obviously, Perenchio prospers when immigrants continue to prefer Spanish to English.

In contrast, English-language newspapers worry that if newcomers don’t learn English well, they won’t buy their products. That might help explain why big-city newspapers that are normally acutely averse to offending minority sensitivities have tended to give Unz excellent press.

In 1998, in fact, Los Angeles Times’ polls showed support among Latinos for Unz’s Prop. 227 growing as the election approached. The month before the vote, the Times reported that Hispanics supported outlawing bilingual education by a 62 percent to 26 percent margin, with the other 12 percent undecided.

This kind of poll result had caused Unz to make brave predictions that his measure would carry a majority of Latinos. Reasoning that mastering English is so crucial to prosperity, he assumed that all Hispanic parents would want what was best for their children. That caused him (and the L.A. Times) some embarrassment on Election Day, despite his overall 61 percent to 39 percent triumph, when an exit polled showed only 37 percent of Latinos backing his plan.

In fact, Hispanic support for banning bilingual education turned out to be concentrated in middle-class, primarily English-speaking neighborhoods, such as Montebello. Neighborhoods with large numbers of working class Spanish-speakers, such as Huntington Park, tended to vote to keep teaching students in Spanish.

Of course, most Spanish-speaking residents of America who can’t speak English also can’t vote. That’s because, though there are loopholes, earning citizenship normally requires the ability to speak simple English.

Some idea of how these non-voters feel can be gleaned from a poll of 1,206 Hispanics — citizens and non-citizens alike — conducted by bilingual interviewers for Yankelovich’s Hispanic Monitor. This marketing research report doesn’t have a political ax to grind because it was produced for corporations that simply want to know the facts about Hispanics so they can sell them more stuff.

Yankelovich found that many Latinos prefer Spanish to English. According to the interviews, “Hispanics’ preference for the Spanish language in every situation, including home, work and media consumption, is on the rise — from 44 percent in 1997 to 53 percent” in 2000. Moreover, “up from 63 percent in 1997, 69 percent of Hispanics say that the Spanish language is more important to them now than five years ago.”

“A higher preference for Spanish runs counter to current conceptions of acculturation, which assume that many of these consumers will be moving closer, over time, to English usage in their everyday lives,” said Olivia Llamas, Yankelovich’s Hispanic Monitor director.

Why would families risk depriving their children of expert knowledge of English, the dominant language of global commerce? One subtle reason is because switching languages can break extended families apart. The children of immigrants who are educated solely in English are at risk of not being able to fully understand their uncles and grandmothers back home in Mexico.

Not everyone initially grasps the potential emotional toll of “English immersion” education. Yiddish-speaking immigrants, such as Ron Unz’s mother, transformed themselves into superb English-speakers with relative ease. (Even more spectacularly, Yiddish-speakers who migrated to Israel revived the long dead tongue of Hebrew.)

In contrast, Italian-speakers tended to have a harder time with English. A study of American immigrants in 1910 found that Yiddish-speakers were “much more likely to speak English than their fellow ‘new’ immigrants of Italian or Polish descent, despite having spent on average fewer than two more years in the United States.” A recurrent theme in Italian immigrant memoirs is the difficult choice between English, the language of opportunity, and Italian, the language of family. Modern Hispanic immigrants face much of the same dilemma.

Indeed, it appears that a large fraction of Hispanic immigrants wish to have the government serve them in their own language so they won’t have to learn English as quickly or as well.

A2. The second question, then, is: Do they care enough to matter?

It would certainly matter if American citizens’ were depriving themselves of sufficient numbers of potential valuable immigrants by failing to fully accommodate their language needs. If we missed out on our annual goals for number of newcomers because would-be immigrants were avoiding America due to our insensitivity to their native tongues, then citizens would just be shooting themselves in the foot by passing English-Only laws.

Are we?

There are several ways to test this theory. The first is to look at the number of “undocumented workers.” The Immigration and Naturalization Service had been estimating that there were six million in the United States. Then, however, the 2000 Census discovered there are six million more Americans in total than the government had previously imagined. These appear to be mostly illegal aliens. Northeastern University demographer Paul Harrington suggests there may be as many as 13 million illegals. Considering the travails that illegal immigrants must undergo to get here — sneaking through fences, walking through burning deserts, and the like — this suggests that America’s appeal to foreigners is not notably diminished by our failing to fully serve them in their own tongues.

The second test is to look at non-Hispanic groups. Asians grew at an even faster rate (plus 72 percent) than Hispanics (plus 58 percent) over the past decade, despite a much lower chance of being offered services in their own languages.

East Asian immigrants are much more expensive and difficult to deal with in their native tongues because they are one race divided up into many language groups (Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Cambodian and so forth). Hispanic immigrants are many races (white, black, New World Indian and various combinations) united into one language group, so they are easier for governments to cater to linguistically. Further, while Hispanics tend to cluster in barrios, Asians generally disperse into the suburbs much more quickly. This means, they much less often attain the critical mass that would cost-justify a bilingual program.

Not surprisingly, California’s Asian citizens voted 57 percent to 43 percent in favor of banning bilingual education in 1998.

A third test is to look at the behavior of potential immigrants from countries so obscure that they know that not even rich America could afford to offer them services in their own tongue.

A little-known immigration program called the Diversity Lottery sheds an interesting light on this question. The U.S. State Department hands out 55,000 immigration visas annually to randomly selected applicants from countries that don’t send many immigrants to the United States via the normal channels. The stated purpose is to increase the ethnic diversity of the U.S. population. Thus, this program excludes nationals from Mexico, China, India and the other 12 biggest suppliers of newcomers. Instead, it offered, for example, visas to 80 applicants from Kyrgyzstan in 1998.

Since Kyrgyzstanis and the like generally have little hope of finding an American bureaucrat or teacher wearing an “I Speak Kyrgyz” button, these 55,000 immigrants must suffer even more from lack of bilingualism than do Spanish-speaking immigrants. So, do foreigners from small, countries avoid trying to come to America? Not exactly. Applicants for the 55,000 annual visas number 5.8 million. That’s more than 100 for each opening.

All this evidence suggests that while many immigrants might appreciate government help in encouraging their families to stick with language from the old country, American citizens would not sacrifice much of the national interest by withholding it.

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