INK_BLAST | BIG CITIES LIKE NEW YORK MUST HABLAR ESPAÑOL AND CHINESE AND RUSSIAN AND…
This summer, New York City showed great leadership in moving this country in a multilingual direction.
On July 22, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed an executive order requiring city agencies to offer assistance, documentation, interpretation and publications in six foreign languages: Spanish, Russian, Italian, French Creole, Korean and Chinese.
This should be a model for other cities, and I wish it had happened sooner in New York.
You see, I grew up an immigrant in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. My family moved from the Dominican Republic when I was ten years old, and my sister was seven. None of us spoke English when we arrived, and spent the first couple of years struggling to navigate the public institutions that defined our new existence—schools, hospitals, employers, the IRS, the INS and many others.
At first my mother relied heavily on neighbors, friends and people from church to help her understand official correspondence or fill out forms to enroll us in school or get us a library card.
At around age twelve I started to speak enough English to translate school paperwork and job applications for my family. And I would accompany my mother to doctor visits, potential employers and other agencies. That meant missing school sometimes and spending long hours in crowded municipal offices.
There was a tangible economic cost to our household when my mother had to miss work or I had to miss school because city agencies did not offer translation services or literature in Spanish.
That cost is still felt by millions of immigrants who have their lives curtailed daily by a lack of services and information in their mother tongue.
Municipalities face a cost, as well.
Income and real estate taxes, commercial and individual license fees, and countless other monetary transactions fail to be executed daily because many public offices do not conduct their business in a language people can understand.
Places like Los Angeles, Houston, Miami and Chicago should follow New York’s example.
In L.A. County, at least 224 languages have been identified by the Census, with publications being produced in about 180 of them. What’s more, the Los Angeles Unified School District lists 92 languages spoken by its students. None of that is surprising for California, a state with 11.6 million documented immigrants and an estimated 2.4 million undocumented ones. Spanish is the most frequently spoken foreign language.
Houston, the fourth largest city in the country, is 37.4 percent Latino, which accounts for Spanish being the unofficial second language there, while about 90 are spoken in the metropolitan area. Houston’s emergency services have taken the lead. In the first half of this year, 7,102 emergency calls to 911 were handled in 32 languages, according to public records. The top three languages requested were Spanish, Vietnamese and Mandarin.
Similarly, Chicago area hospitals are on record as having used 26 languages for over-the-phone interpretation, including Spanish, Polish, Arabic, Cantonese and Russian.
Miami is probably the most functionally bilingual city in the entire United States, with 58.5 percent of the county’s 2.4 million residents speaking Spanish.
That’s where my parents now reside. And although their English is much better than it was when I was a child, life is much easier for them in a place that provides equal services in their native tongue and where they can file their taxes, renew their insurance and conduct banking transactions in a language they command.
Opponents of multilingual services ask why we should provide services for people who don’t speak English.
The answer is simple: It brings in money—to the people who earn and pay it, and the governments and businesses that collect it.
"Juleyka Lantigua is a journalist and editor whose work appears in national newspapers and magazines. For more info visit: www.juleykalantigua.com."