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Non-English Speakers Find Adaptation Elusive
By Kelly Brewington
JULY 1, 2002
Five years ago, Maria Aguilar was a bank manager in Cali, Colombia, with a staff of 20 people and two banks in her charge. Today she's a secretary in an Orlando doctor's office, filing patients' charts and logging appointments.
Although she earned master's degrees in business administration and finance from a Colombian university, when the 30-year-old moved to Orlando, she was forced to start at the opposite end of the corporate ladder.
"I've never been a secretary," she said in accented English. "I used to have people reporting to me."
She hopes to get a management position, but that must wait until she masters English. Spanish is the language she thinks and dreams in.
Aguilar is among the more than 420,000 residents in Central Florida's six counties who speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. It's a figure that has more than doubled from 194,000 in 1990.
A third of Osceola County's population speaks a language other than English at home, and one in four people does so in Orange.
As the region became a magnet for immigrants and other non-English speakers in the 1990s, Central Florida grew increasingly multilingual. In Orange County, students speak 150 languages, and adults are flooding English classes faster than the courses can meet the demand.
While newcomers strive to command their new language, ethnic enclaves have emerged in Central Florida neighborhoods where people go about their daily lives rarely using English.
In neighborhoods such as Oak Ridge in southwest Orlando, a kaleidoscope of nationalities gathers at Le Maná Bakery, where employees take orders in Spanish and English, while customers dine on Caribbean food and chat in Creole and Portuguese.
Even so, demographers don't expect Central Florida to be the next Miami or New York, with its entrenched ethnic neighborhoods. Central Florida's communities are diverse and spread across the region -- and blending in appears a common goal, experts say.
"I think that the linguistic isolation happens when there is a big concentration of an ethnic group or when a new immigrant group arrives in a small community in North Carolina or Kansas. Orlando is really a melting-pot city," said William Frey, a University of Michigan demographer. "It's a growing area. People are moving there to improve their lives and move up the ladder. For a lot of those places, they are looking to assimilate."
As more languages are spoken in Central Florida's neighborhoods, the debate rages about whether non-English speakers should hold on to their mother tongues or learn English and speak it exclusively.
No shortage of eagerness
Arriving after a full day of work, a dozen students including Aguilar huddle over English workbooks in a classroom at Valencia Community College. In speech tinged with accents varying from Spanish and Portuguese to Italian and French, they pepper the instructor with questions on spelling and word meaning.
"What did you call that piece of paper -- a handout?" asks one.
Linguists say it takes at least five years to master English, but Aguilar and her classmates don't want to wait that long. Many hope to be fluent by the end of the 10-week course and often challenge the class instructor to increase the workload.
"Sometimes you want to say things, but the words don't come out right," said Najia Elmansori, 23, a hostess at a hotel restaurant on International Drive, who studied marketing in her native Fez, Morocco.
The response to a new language-learning program at Valencia's Center for Global Languages was so great that department officials couldn't return the more than 1,000 calls about the new courses.
"You often hear people say, 'I don't understand why they don't all speak English,' " said Beth Larson, who heads Seminole Community College's English for Speakers of Other Languages department. "Well, I know a lot of them who are trying every day."
Others insist on learning English while passing along their native language to their children to preserve their culture.
In certain Central Florida communities, Spanish, Creole or Vietnamese are the languages of business transactions, homeowners-association meetings and even children asking for their allowance. Some may know English but choose to speak their mother tongue among family and neighbors out of custom and familiarity.
It's a touchy and passionate issue for some who want all Americans to speak English.
Political debate rages
"It's rude to speak a language others don't understand in front of them. Rightly or wrongly you will think they are talking about you," said Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First, a national group that supports a federal constitutional amendment making English the official language of government.
An English-only movement was full steam in the late 1980s, when Florida voters approved an amendment to the state constitution making English the state's official language. But that amendment has been largely symbolic.
"By offering services in other languages, the message is, 'Don't bother learning English; we'll take care of you,' " Boulet said. "We are a nation of immigrants; a common language helps bring us together."
The U.S. Constitution doesn't designate an official language, and many say it's not needed.
It's an emotional debate that deals more with immigration and cultural distinctions than language, said J. David Edwards, executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages in Washington.
"What some of these groups cite is the political problems, such as those in Quebec, where it's a political issue and about sovereignty," he said, referring to the French-English debate in that Canadian province. "It's not about language but what language represents."
Jobs hinge on language
In an ever-growing global marketplace, fluency in a second language is one of the greatest assets in nearly every employment sector, Edwards said.
"We have all these wonderful resources -- people coming into this country speaking these languages," Edwards said. "But the school districts and the whole government system treat these people as a problem, not a resource. It's almost as if our policy has been, 'Come to the U.S., learn English, lose your language, then go to college and learn it again.' "
With its patchwork of cultures, 59 percent of residents along Oak Ridge Road in southwest Orlando speak languages other than English with their families, the highest figure in Central Florida, according to the 2000 census. Hialeah Gardens in Miami-Dade County has the highest percentage in the state, with 96 percent. Statewide, the average is 23 percent.
With a range of nationalities from Moroccan and Jamaican to Mexican and Vietnamese, the Oak Ridge neighborhood is considered the most ethnically diverse in the state.
For the area's tightknit Korean community, Oak Ridge is where residents can find a network of stores, restaurants and churches where Korean is the dominant language.
Jun and Sook Kang, who own Lotte Oriental Market, arrived in Florida from South Korea 12 years ago and have struggled with the language ever since. Their son James Kang, 28, a computer programmer, handles their bills and translates when his parents don't feel comfortable speaking English.
"Sometimes it feels like the parental roles have been reversed," James Kang said. "They have tried to learn, but they are older and they kind of get used to using someone else's help like mine. And they can shop and go to church without speaking English."
Across town in Azalea Park, the Cafeteria Latina is a local meeting place, where a television blasts Spanish soap operas and Spanish-language newspapers and fliers clutter the lunch counter.
Next door is a travel agent, a doctor's office and a Christian bookstore called Librería Espíritu Santo -- Holy Ghost Bookshop.
Azalea Park is 39 percent Hispanic, and 40 percent of the population speaks a language other than English.
Time is of the essence
For six years, Leticia Morales, 30, who is Mexican, lived in Fresno, Calif., where Spanish was spoken virtually everywhere.
"It was very difficult moving here," she says in English. "My brothers know English and they help me, but for the most part I have had to teach myself."
She'd like to learn more, but between working as a cook in a restaurant off Semoran Boulevard and caring for three school-age daughters, her spare time is limited.
While Morales shops and socializes in a world where English is rarely spoken, she is constantly picking up English words from her daughters. Researchers say language proficiency increases for second- and third-generation immigrants.
Morales struggled to put together her thoughts in English:
"I'm so proud of my daughters that they can speak both," she said. "It is really important for them. They will have better opportunities."