FOREIGN TONGUE: Legislator wants immigrant families to keep native languages

March 6, 2008


ANNAPOLIS Maryland lawmakers want to fix a "critical shortage" of foreign-language speakers in the United States by urging immigrants and their families to preserve their native tongues.

Sen. James Rosapepe, D-Prince George's, said his bill to establish a task force on encouraging "heritage languages" will benefit the economy and national security.

"[We must] hold on to this tremendous competitive advantage for America," he said at a Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee hearing Thursday.

While learning English is important for immigrants, Rosapepe said the state's population of foreign-language speakers is a vastly underutilized resource.

Nearly 14.5 percent of Marylanders speak a foreign language at home, according to the bill's authors.

Jerry Lampe, deputy director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland, said more than 80 federal agencies need employees with proficiency in certain languages.

The rise of China as a global power and continued American interests in the Middle East and South Asia make languages such as Chinese, Arabic and Urdu important for national security reasons.

The United Nations General Assembly declared 2008 the International Year of Languages, a prime motivation for introducing the bill.

"I know so many people like myself who came here as children, who may have known the language of their parents or their grandparents, but in many cases did not keep it," said Rosapepe, who was born in Italy and served as U.S. ambassador to Romania from 1998 to 2001. "We see this all the time across the United States."

But proponents of making English the official language do not agree.

"I'm opposed to any legislation which eventually leads to taxpayer financed programs that encourage multi-language efforts," said Delegate Patrick McDonough, R-Baltimore County, the lead sponsor of a bill to make English Maryland's official language. "We need to promote English. It's been the unifying force in this nation and that is the language that people need to learn how to speak."

Rosapepe's task force would study heritage language preservation and come up with ways to foster it. State government agencies, the University System of Maryland, business organizations and members of ethnic community groups would be represented.

A major focus of the bill is to advise educators teaching the American-born children of immigrants. At least 150 languages are spoken in Maryland's public schools, according to the bill's authors, although children often lose proficiency as families assimilate.

Representatives from Chinese and African ethnic advocacy groups said many parents are sending their children to study abroad or at language-specific schools in an effort to preserve their cultural heritages.

Without initiatives to encourage native languages, "the growing trend of African immigrants sending their children to attend schools back in Africa" will continue, at a loss to Maryland and U.S. educational systems," said Chuks Eleonu, CEO of the African Peoples Action Congress.

Henry Lau, chair of the Greater Washington Chinese-American Alliance, said several Chinese-language schools have sprung up around the state to meet the demand for cultural education. He urged lawmakers to assist the schools and reward students who master their native tongues.

"Heritage language skills will flourish in Maryland only when there is an encouraging environment," he said.