English sometimes a 3rd - or 4th - language
Oct. 5, 2005
ALBANY, N.Y. - When Afghan immigrant Miram Aioby arrived in America in the early
1980s, he landed in Miami Beach, where people thought he was Cuban and insisted
he speak Spanish.
So, as he roamed the city stocking its vending machines, he learned Spanish and
"I had to learn both to survive," said Aioby, 47, who now runs an Albany grocery
that caters to a mix of South Asians and Bosnians. "After a year, I was pretty
As new immigrants arrive in already diverse neighborhoods, the language they
embrace isn't always English. Honduran cooks learn Mandarin. Mexican clerks
learn Korean. Most often, people learn Spanish.
Language experts say it is a phenomenon that has gone largely unstudied. There
are no tidy reports or statistics at hand, but they say the trend could finally
help make America a multilingual nation.
"People say, 'If you come here, you must learn English,' " said Carolyn Adger,
Language in Society director at the Center for Applied Linguistics in
Washington. "That's true. But that's not enough."
Immigrants quickly see the benefits for dealing with customers, delivery people
and employees. In Koreatown in Los Angeles, where 60 percent of the residents
are Hispanic, Vy Nguyen of the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates sees Hispanic
workers learning Korean, and Korean liquor store owners learning Spanish.
"You should see some of the Mexican workers in Jackson Heights," said Aioby, who
drives to the multicultural Queens neighborhood from his store once a week for
supplies. "The Spanish guys are speaking in Hindi. The Indian guys are speaking
in Spanish. They're even using bad words."
He can follow both sides, though he spoke Dari and Pashto in Afghanistan.
The government and academic worlds are starting to pay attention. Adger's
colleague, Dora Johnson, said researchers are looking at how people learn third,
and even fourth, languages.
She cites one study by the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the
University of Maryland, which works with the federal government to improve the
language skills of Intelligence and Defense Department employees.
Michael Long, director of
the University of Maryland's School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, will
oversee the project. He said the federally funded study in part will examine
whether people who've been raised speaking a second language can learn
additional languages more quickly than "professional" language learners who must
pick up another language for their job.
More than 34 million U.S. residents were born outside the United States,
according to a report late last year by the Center for Immigration Studies.
Immigrants are primarily learning languages by immersion, bypassing established
language schools such as Inlingua or Berlitz, according to language experts and
immigrants. In many cases, immigrants cannot afford the schools anyway. At the
Center for Immigrant Education and Training at LaGuardia Community College in
Long Island City, language classes are free.
"You know, we were just complaining because we want the students to practice
English outside class," said John Hunt, an assistant director.
K.C. Williams, who directs adult education at Forest Hills Community Home in
Jackson Heights, said the crossover doesn't surprise her anymore. She said
immigrants still stream in for the center's English classes, because they
know succeeding in much of today's America still demands it.
But at the corner store, Williams and the Korean owner get along fine without
"She says to me, 'Your Spanish is very good.' And I say, 'So is yours.' "
On the Net:
Center for Applied Linguistics: http://www.cal.org
Center for Advanced Study of Language: http://www.casl.umd.edu