The release this past week of the Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) makes it clear that America's ethnic makeup is changing much quicker than ever before, raising questions about how we as a country should support the evolving needs of a truly multicultural population.
The suburbs are booming with immigrants. And, last year alone, 48 percent of newborns were members of minority groups, a serious challenge for the educational system (see New York Times article "Immigrants Make Paths to Suburbia, Not Cities"). Not only do we risk having an uneducated populace as new immigrant groups typically struggle to assimilate for multiple generations, we face challenges in the courts, social services, health care, even emergency calls for 911 because of language-based issues. Certainly Hispanic immigrants are having the greatest impact, but the concerns extend beyond just one language with more than 170 languages and dialects spoken in the U.S.
In Syracuse and Denver, hospitals have been reporting an often overwhelming need for interpreters in the tonal Karen languages, spoken by three million Karen people in Burma and across the border into Thailand. Karen populations are surging in these two cities because of government-sanctioned programs relocating them to those areas. The strained hospitals initially sought bilinguals from the area, fluent in both Karen and English but not professionally trained, to interpret for legal Karen residents. The logistics and costs proved prohibitive for brief medical consults though. Ultimately, professional over-the-phone interpretation services have lowered costs to a manageable level.
My company, Language Line Services, tracks requests nationwide for language interpretation services. For example, in Washington, D.C., and throughout Northern Virginia, Spanish and Korean are the top two languages requested, which is typical in many markets. Next are Vietnamese, Mandarin, Amharic, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, French and Cantonese. But, many less well known languages are tracking strongly. Oromo (an East African language) is up 514 percent from the final six months of 2009 to the first six months of 2010, jumping from 68th to the 37th among the most requested languages. Swahili is up 227 percent (57th to 39th).
Ten or so years ago the majority of language interpretation requests came from the East and West Coasts. Some major metropolitan areas such as Chicago were well represented, too. These were the traditional magnets for immigrants. Elsewhere, in the middle of the country - Monolingual America - government agencies and businesses reported little need for language services.
That has changed as limited English speakers continue to settle throughout the U.S., as the survey data shows. Hispanics account for about 4.5 million of the 13.3 million new residents in the suburbs; Asians, 2 million. The ACS is an ongoing statistical survey by the U.S. Census Bureau of 250,000 addresses monthly (3 million per year). It is the largest survey other than the Census Bureau's survey every ten years. The data helps determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are distributed annually.
It's important not to underestimate the difference between an established immigrant population in the U.S. and one that has just recently relocated. Many of the languages now being spoken here are completely new to the country, and many organizations are simply not ready for them. These people have to fend for themselves without the benefit of pre-existing generations with the same background and common language.
With more ethnicities and languages than ever before rapidly changing our country's multicultural landscape forever, the same wait and see tactics that have worked in the past must eventually give way to a much more proactive approach.
Louis Provenzano is President and Chief Operating Officer of Language Line Services, the world's leading provider of language-based services.
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