“Pardon me?” “What was that?” “Please repeat yourself, I cannot understand you.” Imagine hearing these phrases upon your arrival in a new and strange country. Not only once or twice, but repeatedly. Imagine being put in an emergency situation attempting to contact the proper authorities, but the phone operator cannot understand you. And no matter how hard you try to explain the situation to the person on the other line, your frantic request for help isn’t met.
On the west side of Erie, Pennsylvania, there is an area called “Little Italy.” This rustic area earned its name from the Italian immigrants that migrated to this area starting in the 1800s. Since then, the community has changed significantly, in a variety of ways. There are a number of programs and organizations in Erie as well as around the country that aid in the development and assimilation of immigrants and their families. But for many people coming into this country, the language barrier is a difficult challenge to overcome, and can be a daunting circumstance. Immigrants provide a rich cultural diversity in food and products sold locally. In addition, immigrants and refugees provide a culturally rich atmosphere within the communities that they reside. When towns and cities come together to celebrate local history and cultures, more countries can represent themselves. Aside from the fact that there are refugees in Erie who have had a previous knowledge and understanding of English before moving to the United States, the reality is that our nation is sprinkled with people from all over the world, and with this being our current situation, we must adapt to withholding a better community for them.
The city of Erie is one of the largest refugee resettlement destinations in Pennsylvania. It has a Bhutanese population estimated at 4,500. It is the fastest-growing of any refugee group in the city. In addition, there are roughly 6,000 Russians and Ukrainians and nearly 3,500 Bosnians living in Erie. Knowing this, most people would think that we have a large majority of people within programs who are able to converse with and be a mediator between those who speak the differing languages. But the major language that is spoken amongst instructors is Spanish. Sign language is a close second. Though these are important ways to communicate to these groups of people, there are thousands who are being unreached because of this monumental gap between the words we speak, and the words they understand.
“When you don’t understand what someone is telling you or can’t make someone understand you, that is frustrating,” said Musa Ndagiza, a Bhutanese immigrant who lives in Erie.
Given the vast differences among immigrants and the many different languages spoken amongst them, some problems might arise. The most predominant issue at hand concerning the language barrier is that of calling for help. 911 operators in Erie are trained primarily in English and Spanish, and anything beyond that is out of their reach. For many people who live in the area without a background in English, this presents a disheartening challenge for them and their families. The trained emergency respondents either has to attempt to understand foreign languages and half-correct English words, or the situation at hand will have to play itself out without any help whatsoever.
“Before I learned English, I couldn’t get any job. I came here with huge hope to change my life and found I had no hope…lack of proper language and interpretation can make damage on a person’s life,” said one immigrant from the Erie area who wishes to remain anonymous.
There are very few opportunities for small, non-profit organizations to learn the languages that are primarily spoken. There needs to be a way to provide training for individuals to learn the primary languages that are spoken in this region, and a way to pay it in order to continually do so. A greater understanding of the New Americans and adapting our current programs to work towards a better and manageable way of teaching, not only just in Erie, but also in every community will greatly benefit the society as a whole, because it benefits as a nation to be equally understood.
In Erie, roughly 60% of Hispanics speak Spanish at home and nearly 50% speak an Asian/Pacific Islander language in the home. Many people coming into the country must also worry about their children. Many parents want a good education for their children, and New Americans are no exception. Busedi, an immigrant from Nepal said his transition from his culture to adapting to a new environment was also difficult for his children: “(This) environment, their world has completely changed. “Everything is different and totally new,” Busedi said. “It’s very hard on them at first. Learning a new language is just one of the many difficult challenges I try to help them through.”
When an overwhelming amount of people around you are speaking a foreign language, the need to be with your own culture increases. A desire to hear your native tongue grows within you, and for many immigrants, they stick within their communities without ever branching out into the community simply because of the language barrier. Joel Tuzynski, executive director of the Multicultural Resource Center, understands the present issue language. He says that many people come into the country with high hopes for their family, without realizing that the language they speak might not be readily spoken around them: “We find that many adults, especially older ones, are resistant to learning English. They get with their neighbors and community circles, or they’re at home, and they feel more comfortable speaking in their native tongue. We remind them that they need to
practice English, and we’ll keep reminding them.”
Within the walls of the agency, Tuzynski notes, are several signs that read “English is spoken here.” He wants whoever walks through the door to remember and understand that this country is their home now. English is the primary language that is spoken, and if you’ve moved here, be prepared to make English your primary language.
The next time you take a step on foreign soil for one moment, one week, or one lifetime, imagine the impact something that we take for granted everyday could truly affect how you go about your day somewhere else.