Fluency a struggle for many

Staff WriterApril 9, 2002 

Between working as a hostess in a Mexican restaurant in Raleigh and rearing a 2-year-old daughter, Guadalupe Lezama doesn't have time for English classes. But every other Wednesday, the recent emigrant from Mexico City makes sure to take little Lizbeht to a play group at an N.C. State University apartment complex for international students. "This is one of my only opportunities to practice my English," Lezama said in Spanish.

She is one of an estimated 158,769 North Carolina residents who speak little or no English. It is a growing group posing a challenge for educators, government officials and business people, and also drawing increasing scrutiny from federal enforcers of civil rights laws.

North Carolina has the nation's worst rate of English proficiency among speakers of foreign languages, a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey shows. Of state residents whose primary language is not English, an estimated 29 percent do not speak English well or at all, according to the Census 2000 Supplementary Survey.

Most of those -- 83 percent -- are Spanish speakers, reflecting the fast growth of the state's Hispanic population. Many Hispanics arrived only recently from Mexico and Central America.

"It's a tremendous challenge," said Nolo Martinez, director of Hispanic/Latino affairs for Gov. Mike Easley. "I really don't know if we have enough resources to satisfy such a huge number of individuals who are not able to speak the language. Certainly, we don't."

An estimated 7.5 percent of North Carolina residents 5 and older speak a foreign language at home, an increasefrom 3.9 percent a decade ago. Of the 542,000 people who speak a foreign language, nearly two-thirds speak Spanish.

State and local agencies are feeling pressure to hire bilingual staff members and translate materials into Spanish. Not doing so could be costly. Under an executive order issued last year by then-President Clinton, such agencies risk losing their federal funding unless they make sure services are accessible to people with limited English-speaking ability.

The Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has begun a compliance review of health agencies and social service departments in all 100 North Carolina counties.

Many county agencies clearly are not providing adequate interpreting and translation services, said Terry Hodges, a public health attorney with the state Department of Health and Human Services who is coordinating the state's response. Being in compliance is about more than retaining federal funds, he said.

"It's the right thing to do, plus it's the legal thing to do," Hodges said. "These new Americans are not going away. This is America now, and we're going to have to face the fact that there are other languages being spoken. I've told the counties and the social services departments that in order to receive money from the federal government, you have to give some money to create programs and hire some translators."

North Carolina already spends tens of millions of dollars on English classes for adults and children with limited English skills.

The census survey shows that North Carolina children who primarily speak foreign languages are far more likely to be fluent in English than the adults. Among those ages 5 to 17 who speak foreign languages other than Spanish, less than 5 percent speak little or no English. The rate was higher for Spanish-speaking children: 23 percent.

This year, state schools are banking on the General Assembly to give them $22 million to teach students with limited English proficiency, up from $5 million when the program began three years ago.

Last year, nearly 37,000 students enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes offered by state community colleges. That was double the number of ESL students five years earlier.

"There's not an instant-English pill that you can take; learning a language is hard work, and it takes time," said Fran Hoch, who oversees the state Department of Public Instruction's program in English as a Second Language. "It's not that people don't want to learn to speak English. It's just that it takes a long time to be able to communicate well."

Jin Li, a transplant from China who has lived in Raleigh for a year, said she learned some English as a schoolgirl in a city near Beijing. Now rearing a 6-year-old son and a baby girl while her husband, Jian Ying, pursues a master's degree at NCSU, Li said sometimes it's hard to make out what people are saying.

"If the people speak very fast, I cannot understand," she said.

On a recent weeknight, 10 adult English students from Asia filed into a small room at Avent Ferry United Methodist Church for an informal class held by the Wake County Literacy Council. As advanced English students, they spent the evening going over idioms.

"Who can tell me what an egghead is?" asked the instructor, Mike Naglich.

"A very intelligent person," said Jian Zhou, a doctoral student in chemistry at NCSU.

"Like Greenspan!" interjected Kent Zhong, who is working on a doctorate in electrical engineering.

Sounding like a chorus out of syncopation, the students all took a try at pronouncing "egghead," and at Naglich's urging, other words in the same vein, such as "geek."

Then Zhong's wife, Tao Zeng, perked up: "Mike, excuse me, is it rude to ask someone to shut up his mouth?"

To which Naglich replied: "It normally is."

Staff writer Ned Glascock can be reached at 829-4557 or nedg@newsobserver.com

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