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WHAT OTHERS SAY: Embrace our linguistic diversity to strengthen America

Wednesday, August 21, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

America’s metaphorical melting pot simmers on, despite some misguided efforts to put a lid on it.

The U.S. Census Bureau offers fresh proof of the nation’s linguistic diversity with a new mapping tool and report that show roughly where people who speak a language other than English in the home live.

Nationally, the percentage of people 5 years and older who speak a language other than English at home is on the rise. About one in five now do, but more than half of them also speak English “very well.” The portion of Americans who do not speak English very well has held steady in recent years at only 8.7 percent.

“This study provides evidence of the growing role of languages other than English in the national fabric,” said Camille Ryan, a statistician in the Census Bureau’s Education and Social Stratification Branch and the report’s author.

Greater and lesser pockets of diversity emerge when one zooms in on the map. In California, 44 percent of people don’t speak English at home. In Laredo, Texas, it’s an astounding 92 percent.

Here in the heartland, English has a firmer hold. In Kansas, 11 percent of people speak something else at home. In Missouri, it’s only 6 percent.

The Census Bureau found about 50,000 people in the Kansas City area speak Spanish at home. More than half of that number also speak English very well.

Spanish isn’t the only popular non-English language around here, though. Portuguese, Russian and Persian households pop up, including in Olathe. Some manufacturing companies there have workers speaking any of more than two dozen languages.

Meanwhile, people who speak Japanese, Chinese or Korean at home congregate around Lawrence, no doubt drawn by the university.

America remains a pluralistic society whose diversity is a strength. The language you speak shapes how you perceive the world. Multiple perspectives help ensure that creative alternatives are part of the public discourse. They also help Americans better understand the many cultures with whom the nation interacts on the world stage.

Many people are not willing to listen, though.

Congress remains unable to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would allow more workers to enter America legally and become active participants in the community.

Kansas erected needless barriers, passing a law in 2007 that declares English to be the official language for public business.

Missouri lawmakers have considered bills, too. Two years ago, the House passed one to require the state driver’s license test to be administered only in English. Cooler heads in the Senate let it die.

The Census Bureau’s map offers more than trivia. Communities can use the data to plan language services from translators who help emergency responders to English proficiency programs to library acquisitions. Government’s job is to serve all residents, not just the ones who speak a preferred language.

More important, anyone can use the map to see that non-English speakers are among us. They are our neighbors throughout this great land.

We should not turn our backs on them just because they do not speak English very well.

Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.


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Comments

Skip Yates August 26, 2013 | 12:18 a.m.

I have lived in three foreign countries where English was not the language: Austria, Spain and Japan. Not one of them feel a need to adjust to my language; rather, if I wanted to be there, it was my responsibility to learn theirs. There were no ESL type classes in any of them. Gee, I wonder...does this have something to do with voting your perfered political party?

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