A new report from the advocacy group, Asian Americans for Equality, has found that 60 percent of Asian Americans living in the 20 New York City neighborhoods with the highest Asian American populations speak English with limited proficiency.
The report also found that 42.5% of Asian Americans reside in linguistically isolated households, or homes where no one over five years old speaks English with proficiency.
Neighborhoods with the highest rates of linguistically isolated homes are Chinatown, Flushing and Jackson Heights in Queens, and Sunset Park in Brooklyn.
Doug Le with Asian Americans for Equality said that within these neighborhoods it is very easy to live without speaking English.
“You can honestly live your daily life speaking your native tongue,” Le said. “You can get help at the subway station buy food, you can go to church, often times you can go to get social services or primary care.”
But Le said many immigrants face problems when they seek services beyond these neighborhoods, specifically those looking for classes to learn English.
“When they arrive [in New York], there are limited opportunities to learn English. Many social services agencies do provide ESL to individuals, but there’s never nearly enough slots in these classes for individuals who want to learn English,” Le said.
JB is a Chinese immigrant who moved to America eight years ago, when he was 18. He and his two sisters learned English, but his parents still only speak Cantonese. He said while his mother has taken advantage of some English classes at their local library in Bay Ridge, but his father is unable to attend, due to his job as a construction worker.
“My father doesn’t have time and it’s an issue,” JB said. “He said if he was younger and had the time to take classes and study like me, he would go.”
JB said he has to translate for his parents during doctors appointments, as well as make sense of tax forms and business letters.
New York City councilmember Margaret Chin used to teach English to Chinese immigrants before joining the city council. She said there needs to be more classes available.
“We need to fight for more ESL classes. There are people on the waiting list, and there’s not enough classes available at time where people are available to attend. They work during the day,” Chin said.
Chin said many times residents in her district, which includes Chinatown, will come in looking for translation help. “They get documents in the mail, parents getting letters from school,” she said.
Chin also said a large number of residents are people who were arrested, but couldn’t defend themselves because they couldn’t speak the language fluently.
“There needs to be more education to let people know they have a right to a translator,” Chin asserted.
Le, with AAFE, says not only are many immigrants unable to speak English, but they are also illiterate in their native language, which creates additional problems.
“It’s partially because of age, partially because of immigration history,” he said. “Many seniors grew up in rural areas that didn’t have access to formal education or because of the war (WWII), they were in and out of school. The reality is the immigrants who come to New York are the highest and lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Many are uneducated.”
As part of executive order 120, New York City agencies are required to provide language access in the top five languages, but Le said there are many dialects that fall through the cracks, forcing people to bring their children along as well. He said that puts children in a precarious situation, especially if they have to translate a domestic violence issue or a cancer diagnosis.
“These are situations children aren’t ready to face,” Le said.