Sunday, November 02, 2008

Languages fill the melting pot

Census data show big jump in Spanish - and many other foreign - speakers

By Leslie Berestein, Union-Tribune Staff Writer
and Danielle Cervantes, Staff Data Specialist,
September 24, 2008

At the San Diego Farmers Market, a sprawling complex of small businesses in Logan Heights catering mostly to Latinos, it's uncommon for customers to hear "May I help you?"

Francisco Lopez worked on pants yesterday at the Jedgga's Bridal and Alteration Center in the San Diego Farmers Market on Imperial Avenue in Logan Heights.

"We'll usually say, 'Te ayudo?' or 'Te puedo ayudar?' " said Janeth Herrera, co-owner of Red Hot Fashion Shoes, located in one of the stalls.

An analysis of U.S. census data shows that the number of foreign-language speakers, particularly Spanish speakers, has grown dramatically in San Diego County since 1990 in relation to the county's population growth.

While the number of county residents 5 and older has increased 19 percent since then, the census data released this week show a 78 percent increase in residents who say they speak Spanish at home.

The number of self-identified Spanish speakers has risen to more than 661,000 last year from 370,000 in 1990.

The 2007 American Community Survey sampled 3 million randomly selected U.S. households throughout 2007.

Though their numbers are far smaller and have fluctuated in recent years, there also have been significant increases since 1990 in Tagalog, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean speakers in the county. For example, there are more than three times as many Korean speakers today as there were then.

Overall, at least one in three county residents speaks a language other than English at home; since 1990, the total number of county residents who speak a language other than English has gone up 66 percent.

All of this is evidence of the county's growing polyglot identity over two decades, said Ana Celia Zentella, a professor emeritus of ethnic studies at University of California of San Diego.

"There is this misperception that San Diego is merely bilingual, that is, Spanish and English, when in fact it is very multilingual," Zentella said.

Of course, Spanish speakers dominate the region's multilingual landscape, making up 69 percent of the county's other-than-English speakers, and their influence is felt everywhere, from health care to schools to local radio.

Spanish-language billboards line Imperial Avenue outside the San Diego Farmers Market. One day last week, a Radio La Nueva 106.5 van was parked across the street, emblazoned with an ad for the morning show starring Eduardo "Piolin" Sotelo, a popular Los Angeles-based host whose show was recently rated the most listened to in San Diego County.

While Tagalog-speaking health care workers are plentiful in the county thanks to English-language nursing programs in the Philippines, where programs are structured around placing graduates in U.S. jobs, the situation is different for Spanish speakers, said John Cihomsky, a spokesman for Sharp HealthCare.

"There is a real need in the community for more Spanish-language physicians and nurses," said Cihomsky, who said there have been efforts to recruit Spanish-speaking staff, including nurses in Tijuana as part of a pilot program for Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, where as many as 40 percent of patients are Spanish-speaking.
About 50 percent of the students in the San Diego Unified School District speak a language other than English at home, and nearly 80 percent of those are Spanish speakers, said Teresa Walter, director of the Office of Language Acquisition for the district.

About 30 percent of the district's students are considered English learners, and the percentage has remained relatively fixed for five to eight years, Walter said.

This is consistent with census data that indicate greater English fluency among school-age children: Between 2000 and 2007, the percentage of children ages 5-17 from Spanish-speaking households in San Diego County who speak English "very well" has jumped to 70 percent from 60 percent.

During this time, older Spanish speakers reported declining English fluency.

Zentella, who has studied bilingualism in local high schools, said that although Spanish continues to be spoken in the county by new immigrants, older generations and border residents with ties to San Diego and Tijuana, Spanish fluency is being lost at a high rate by young people.

With few bilingual programs still running in local public schools, the rate at which young Latinos continue to speak Spanish depends on how long their parents have been in the United States, how often they return to their native country and their social networks, Zentella said.

Sent by Alberto Ochoa

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