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Calling NYT`s Freedman! How About The Rest Of The Dominican Story?
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January 28, 2005, 04:00 AM
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Two weeks ago, I wrote skeptically about Samuel Freedman`s New York Times column "Dominicans Take Their Place as an American Success Story," which boomed the successes of a small group of Hostos Community College English as a Second Language students.

According to Freedman, after graduating the students parlayed their classroom accomplishments into solid jobs.

Freedman`s article drew heavily from a study, Against All Odds, by Dr. Ramona Hernandez of the City University of New York`s Dominican Studies Institute.

But an earlier report by Dr. Hernandez, Dominicans in the US: A Socioeconomic Profile, 2000, left me dubious about the overall level of English fluency among Dominicans, as well as other illegal immigrants.  

Now it turns out that my doubts were well-founded.

I am always fascinated when I read reports of peers who have succeeded in teaching English to non-English speakers.

I`ve been at this task­ for 18 years at the Lodi Adult School—with mixed results.

I have found that only one variable matters: motivation.

When a student comes to class every day and applies himself to the hard job of learning, and when that student takes advantage of the multiple daily opportunities that present themselves to practice English, then by the end of the semester progress is measurable.

But not much of that is going on.

Two other recent stories by New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein about statistics collected by Joseph Salvo, director of the population division of the City Planning Department, Proficiency in English Decreases Over a Decade, January 19th, and "Record Immigration is Changing the Face of New York`s Neighborhoods," January 24th, reveal that the tiny handful of Hostos students do deserve a tip of the hat.

Because, based on Salvo`s analysis, they are among the very few foreign-born New York residents who have learned English in the last decade.

Among Salvo`s shocking findings (even for hard-boiled immigration experts like VDARE.COM readers) are:

  • Non-English speaking adults increased 30% from 1990 to 2000 to more than 1.5 million.

  • One in four adults do not speak English. There is, according to the report, "no sign of a decline" in the foreseeable future.

  • Half of the 1.5 million residents who do not speak English live in homes where no one speaks English.

  • One quarter of the 1.5 million non-English speakers live in households where only a child speaks English.

  • Nearly 750,000 non-English speakers do not have a high-school education. Many are illiterate in their own language.

  • Immigrant groups with the highest number of births—Dominicans, Mexicans and Chinese—have the highest percentage of non-English speakers.

(Salvo`s report will be released in a 265-page book entitled The Newest New Yorkers 2000: Immigrant New York in the New Millennium.)

One of the conclusions Bernstein draws—somewhat surprisingly for a New York Times reporter— is that:

"In the migrations before 1965, most newcomers spoke European languages. But what is striking about the current generation of immigrants is the vast range of tongues they use on the city`s streets, adding difficulties in education, business and the minutiae of daily life and making the need for English as a common language all the more urgent."

More predictably, Salvo`s report calls for an increase in the numbers of classes and programs to teach English.

But it would be impossible to build schools fast enough to keep up with the endless arrival of non-English speakers.  And why should American taxpayers put up with it?

Even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an immigration enthusiast with few equals, looked at the demographics in multicultural, multiethnic Far Rockaway and said, "What`s going on down there?"

Programs and classes might be a fine starting point. But, as I noted above, my own experience leads me to a different conclusion. The desire to learn must come from within.

So it is counter-productive when individuals with influence, like CUNY`s Dr. Hernandez, say, "The fashionable thing is to talk about assimilation but I don`t speak about that stuff." [Writing a Field Guide to Dominican New York" NYT, "December 28,2004]

Assimilation begins with learning English. And is exactly what Hernandez should preach.

Contrast Hernandez` attitude with the pre-1965 immigrants, who came to America with a passion to assimilate.

One remarkable example: Billy Wilder who arrived in Los Angeles from Austria penniless and without knowing a word of English.

Wilder`s story was retold in Aljean Harmetz`s 1992 book "Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman and World War II."

Wrote Harmetz:

"When he reached Los Angeles, Wilder avoided the restaurants and living rooms where refugees met to drink coffee, eat pastry and speak German. Instead, he lay on his bed and listened to the radio. Each day, he learned twenty new English words. It was years before he was willing to speak German again."

Every day I remind my students that they can choose whether they want to spend their years in America advancing, or mired in low-paying jobs.

The difference is English.

Only a few will match Academy Award winner Wilder`s success.

But more opportunities await all who master English – even if their self-appointed leaders don`t like it.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly newspaper column since 1988. This column is exclusive to VDARE.COM.