Immigrants find English sometimes a 3rd - or 4th - language
Associated Press
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 English.

"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 good."

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 it.

"She says to me, 'Your Spanish is very good.' And I say, 'So is yours.' "


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