Tag Archives: New York City

Is Language Holding Back New York’s Bengali Voters?

Bangladeshi-owned barbershop in Jackson Heights, Queens

[Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a guest post from New York-based reporter Nina Porzucki]

Once a month Zain Ahmed treks from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to a windowless basement shop in Jackson Heights, Queens, just to get his haircut. “I take 3 or 4 trains just to get here,” says Ahmed. “That’s dedication, right?”

Ahmed works in finance, as a bond researcher. When it comes to the election, he’s most concerned about the economy and “where we’re headed.” Ahmed is a Democrat, and Tuesday he will be voting for Obama.

Ahmed was born in the US but his parents are from Bangladesh. He grew up speaking both English and Bengali. For him, language assistance at the polls isn’t an issue. He didn’t even know that Bengali translations of the ballot would be available—or for that matter that the local Bangladeshi population has grown as much as it has.

According to the latest census, there are enough limited-English speakers of South Asian decent to require language assistance in Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi at certain polling places in Queens. Of those languages, there are more Bengali speakers who speak limited English. While there will be interpreters available for all three languages, officials chose to translate the ballot into just Bengali.

Glenn Magpantay of the Asian American Legal and Education Fund says language assistance to non-English speakers is crucial. If people “are not proficient enough [in English] to read a ballot, should they be denied their right to vote?”

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, more than 5,000 Bengali speakers in Queens should have been able to cast their ballot in Bengali. But ballot translations will not completed in time. The New York City Board of Elections has not explained why and didn’t respond to requests for comment. However, there will be some language assistance at the polls, including interpreters and signage. There will also be sample ballots in Bengali. Just not the real thing. “It’s nice to have a sign which identifies the poll’s site,” says Magpantay. “But really the ballot that you mark to vote for the president or senator or member of congress needs to be in a language that the voter actually understands.”

Magpantay isn’t quite sure how the lack of Bengali ballots will affect those 5,000 potential voters. Jackson Heights Barber Sonatan Sil is one of them. When I ask Sil about the importance of voting in his mother tongue, Sil brushes off the question. He’s more concerned about deciding who to vote for. Sil says he still hasn’t made up his mind between Obama and Romney. “I am not Democrat,” he says. “I am not Republican.”

Sonatan Sil gives Zain Ahmen a haircut (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

This surprises his Upper East Side customer Zain Ahmed. Ahmed shakes his head at the barber. “To me that’s absurd. I mean I’m a religious middle-class minority,” says Ahmed. “The opposition is not in favor of people like me.”

The undecided barber shakes his head back at his Obama supporting customer. For Sil the biggest issue this election season is jobs. “Romney’s policies [are], I think, good policies,” he tells his customer.

Ahmed gets upset. “What are you saying?” he says to the barber. “What are you talking about? Not for people like us.”

The discussion continues on just like that throughout the entire haircut. Sil, the barber talks about his dislike of Obamacare. Ahmed, the customer continues to disagree.

There’s no consensus in sight—just like discussions in barbershops in Ohio or Florida. In a small basement shop in Jackson Heights, Queens, democracy certainly is alive and buzzing. But while Ahmed and Sil have the language skills to easily navigate the English ballot this election day, many of their neighbors may not.

[Patrick Cox adds: In the pod, I mentioned two other language-related election stories. In Maricopa County, AZ, election officials put out a Spanish-language flyer urging people to vote on November 8, two days after the day when everyone else will be voting. And California’s official Korean-language voters’ guide said that Proposition 20 would raise the state sales tax by 25 cents, one hundred times higher than the correct amount, a quarter of one cent.]



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Learning in two languages, and new Zulu words

A back-to-school edition about learning in a second language. We spend some time in the classroom with fourth grade teacher Stephanie Blanco of  Gauldin Elementary School in Downey, CA to explore the challenges of teaching English language learners. ELL came to the fore after 1998, when California voters approved Proposition 227, which ended bilingual education.  In ELL classrooms,  everyone — whether they or not they are proficient in English — learns in English.

Gauldin has a good record of improving ELL students’ English skills, in marked contrast to many of the schools in neighboring Los Angeles. The situation there is so dire that the the U.S. Department of Education has launched a investigation to determine if if the Los Angeles Unified School District is violating the civil rights of English Language Learners.  The feds are also taking a look at Boston schools. (A few months ago, Carol Hills and I  discussed Arizona’s decision to penalize ELL teachers whose accents are deemed too foreign. Arizona is still defending its policy, which itself has come under federal scrutiny.)

Also in the podcast, a Creole-speaking Haitian girl newly arrived in New York City enrols in a high school, with help from a community group in Brooklyn. The girl fled Haiti after the earthquake there earlier this year. Like most Haitians, she wants to master the language and stay here permanently.  But she only has a U.S. visitor visa.Then it’s back to California as an Arabic immersion program gets underway at FAME a public charter school in Fremont, CA. Reporter Hana Baba provided us with a nice slideshow of scenes from the school, including the photo above of school founder Maram Alaiwat. Not surprisingly, many of the students at this K-10th grade school are of Arab and/or Muslim descent.  More surprising is that the school has opened its doors to the FBI. The bureau offers FAME 5th graders the chance to become “junior special agents” .

Finally, the first Zulu-English dictionary in 40 years has just been published in South Africa. Some English speakers already know a few words of Zulu (also known as isiZulu) — words like ubuntu. Zulu has also borrowed from other South African languages such as Afrikaans, and many Zulu words offer their own linguistic takes on apartheid and AIDS. We talk with the publishing manager of Oxford University Press South Africa.

Listen in iTunes or here.


6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Moorish grafitti and texting in Yiddish

The Alhambra in Grenada, the crowning glory of Moorish Spain, has more than 10,000 prayers and poems in Arabic inscribed on its pillars and walls. We hear about an effort to decipher and catalog the inscriptions. It’s not the first time this has been tried. But previous attempts foundered, when researchers became distracted by their findings. This time,  Spain’s Higher Council for Scientific Research is taking a more rigorous approach. Even so, it must be  hard not set aside your tools and get meditative after you’ve discovered an inscription like “Be sparing with words and you will go in peace.”

The rest of the pod is devoted to the second part of the BBC’s documentary on Yiddish. Reporter Dennis Marks picks up the story in the 1960s, when Yiddish was staring extinction in the face, after many decades in which it language thrived among Jewish Eastern European immigrants, as in this World War Two-era poster).  But more recently in New York City, the language has began to  undergo a modest revival. A big contributor to that was Aaron Lansky who founded the National Yiddish Book Center, which rescused thousands of Yiddish volumes from depositories and dumpsters: as he puts it to take books “out of the dustbin of history and put them back into use.”

We also hear from YY Jacobson, a rabbi in the Crown Heights section of New York and editor of the Hasidic Yiddish newspaper Algemeiner.  His contribution to the survival of Yiddish is the most overtly religious. Others have cultural or ancestral reasons for investigating the language: people like klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals, novelist Dara Horn, and a family who speak with each other in both English and Yiddish. The teens in the family text message each other in transliterated Yiddish, complete with texting shorthand:  ZG is zei gezunt (be well) and BSH is biz shpeter (until next time/goodbye).

Listen in iTunes or here.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized