Overcoming the Language Barrier

April 04, 1994

During the immigration explosion of the 1980s, more than 7 million natives of other nations came to America, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. That was as many as in the previous 20 years and about 13 percent of all immigrants to the United States from 1820 to 1990.

Maryland wasn't immune to this boom. Some 150,000 foreigners made new homes here through the '80s. Most of them, reflecting the trend elsewhere in the country, were Latin Americans and Asians who settled in metropolitan areas.

For all the contributions that immigration has made to America, they have not occurred without a certain amount of struggle, on the part of both host nation and newcomers.

As Sun reporter James Bock noted in a recent article, one upshot of the big immigration wave of the '80s is that an unusually large number of new Americans now struggle with the difficulties of speaking English poorly or not at all. Mr. Bock's story focused on women immigrants in Maryland whose poor English isolates them at times of crisis, especially women in abusive relationships. Social workers say it's hard enough to convince a battered wife from a foreign culture that she need not be silent about the abuse; the task is made even tougher by language barriers that render initial communications next to impossible.

Metro school systems also are confronting an increase in students who speak limited English. State figures show that the number of Maryland public school students from limited-English homes jumped from about 7,000 in 1987 to roughly 12,000 in 1992. In response, local systems have been beefing up their financing of English for Speakers of Other Language (ESOL) programs, while Gov. William Donald Schaefer has proposed spending $6 million on ESOL efforts. If senators and delegates can reach a compromise in their dispute over this year's budget, the bulk of the money would go to the jurisdictions with the most ESOL students, from $2.8 million in top-ranked Montgomery County to $145,000 in sixth-ranked Anne Arundel.

State and local governments appear to be waking up, if gradually, to the necessity of paying for such initiatives. These new citizens can't begin to contribute their talents to society until they are helped over the language barrier.

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