View From Lodi, CA: In Immigration`s Tower of Babel, Even Less Incentive to Learn English


Even after nearly twenty years of
teaching English as a Second language at the Lodi Adult
School, I am still taken aback when

a new student comes to enroll bringing her minor child
to interpret for her.

The children provide the basic
information about their

non-English speaking parents
—address, telephone
number and emergency contacts. In some cases, the
children fill out the registration form.

At different times, I have seen
school age children help parents

fill out government forms
or act as

translators
in conversations between parents and
teachers about their own classroom performance

The adult school often has
personnel on staff that

speaks various languages
. At some time or another,
we`ve had to deal with

Arabic
,

Farsi
,

Khmer
,

Urdu
,

Chinese
,

Vietnamese
and

Tagalog
.

These are among the

most commonly spoken foreign languages
in
California. But ready translators are not always
available.

Using minor English-speaking
children to help parents get through their daily lives
is a

well-recognized and mostly innocuous fact of life in
California
when the setting is a school, the motor
vehicle department or city hall.

But the stakes are quite different
if the child is translating in a doctor`s office or
clinic.

San Francisco

Assemblyman Leland Yee
, a Chinese-American, has
introduced Assembly Bill 292 that would ban the use of
child interpreters in medical and counseling settings.

According to Yee, his bill

“would help keep children
out of traumatic situations and would ensure that
limited English speakers and their family members
receive

equal medical care
or

quality service
from their government without errors
due to inadequate interpretation.”

Yee, who has a doctorate in child
psychology from the University of Hawaii, also

contends
that his bill would:

“ensure
that limited English speakers and their family members
receive equal medical care or quality service from their
government without errors due to inadequate
interpretation.”

If Yee`s bill becomes law,
California would be the first state to pass such
far-reaching restrictions.

But AB 292, which passed the
assembly and will soon be considered by the Senate, will
face many

passionate arguments
from both sides of the fence.

Yee has strong supporters. For one,
the San Francisco General Hospital general clinic
medical director is concerned that young children can
suffer severe emotional damage if they are the first to
learn about a parents` serious illness and must then
deliver the tragic news.

Said Dr. Alice Chen:

“If they are the ones
telling their mom she has cervical cancer, that`s a
problem. I`ve seen kids walk away thinking they`ve
caused it.”

[California
Seeks to Stop the Use of Child Medical Interpreters,

Associated Press, October 30, 2005]

But on the other hand, there is the practical question of who will
translate if the children don`t? California has a
chronic shortage of translators. In some cases, where
rarely spoken dialects are involved, court cases have
been delayed for days. [“Language
Barriers Put Courts to Test
,” Jose Arballo, Jr.,
Riverside Press-Enterprise,
December 17, 2001]

And the expense is

no small matter.
Hospitals are extremely concerned
about absorbing still additional

costs
. Typically, an interpreter earns about $300 a
day and about $165 for a half day…more for the

obscure languages.

In California, where two families out of five

do not speak English at home
, the aggregate expense
of translating could be astronomical. 

In fact, the
California Association of Health Plans
estimates
that the costs could reach $15 million annually for
family doctors alone.

Leanne Gassaway, the
association`s vice president of legal and regulatory
affairs said:

"We discourage the use of
children, but in an emergency they may be the only
resource you have.”

And in an ominous note
for citizens already reeling from ever-increasing health
care costs, Gassaway added:

“You can`t just add $15
million to the system and not expect premiums to go up
for everyone."

Most significantly,
Yee`s bill could drive small practitioners out of
business.

As Tom Riley, director
of government relations at the California Academy of
Family Physicians, told Associated Press reporter
Garance Burke:

“You may be the doc in the
trenches doing all the right things, caring for a
diverse limited-English-proficient population but you
could be hit by this bill in a way that you cannot
economically survive”

[Citing
Medical Errors, California Seeks to Ban Child
Interpreters
,
Garance Burke, Associated Press,
October 24, 2004]

In 21st
Century California, it is not practical—or even
possible—to have legislation that covers

every possible language contingency
.

No one would be served
if AB 292 were enacted but then put small

family doctors
—the very type who frequently treat
non-English speakers—out of business.

Many of the
non-English speakers have lived in the U.S. for a decade
or more. Even if

they have not learned English
, the chances are still
good that someone in their family or circle of friends
has.

Would it not be
possible for non-English speakers to carry a card in
their wallet or purse that identifies an emergency
contact who does speak English? In any crisis, that
person could be summoned immediately.

As simple as that
sounds, it may be the answer. At the very least, the ID
card is a starting point.

And it`s a better
place to begin than multi-million dollar legislation
that shifts yet more

financial burdens
to the

taxpayers.

Joe Guzzardi [email
him], an instructor in English
at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly
column since 1988. It currently appears in the


Lodi News-Sentinel
.