Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Living in a household where adults don't speak much English has economic and academic consequences for children.
Sapna Pandya grew up in a multi-generational immigrant household in Montgomery County, Maryland. Both her parents worked, so her grandparents looked after her. Outside the home, Pandya would broker all interactions for her grandparents—translating back-and-forth from Gujarati because they barely spoke English.
"What it does is that it flips the dynamic," she recalls. "It makes it so that you really have to grow up pretty quickly."
Pandya is now the director at Many Languages One Voice, a non-profit that wants to empower D.C.'s immigrant communities. Many of the children she works with are "linguistically isolated": they have no English-proficient family members over the age of 14 living in their homes. Unlike Pandya, whose parents did speak English, these children are their family's sole gateway to the outside world. The Urban Institute has identified around 85,000 such children in the D.C. metro area—that's one in 15 kids—who face economic and academic handicaps as a result of their unique position.
In general, limited English proficiency is correlated with low socio-economic status, and this is true in D.C., where a quarter of linguistically isolated families live below the poverty line. But the lack of English skills in these households prevents them from seeking and accessing the government support services they greatly need, says Julia Gelatt at the Urban Institute who has done extensive research on linguistic isolation.
Often these adults either don't know what resources are available, or the information they receive about them—brokered through community members—is incorrect. Many enlist their children to fill out complicated paperwork that the children are not always mature enough to handle, which leads to mistakes. Other times, the parents forgo the process filling out paperwork or tracking down information altogether because it's too embarrassing or cumbersome.
One key way limited English proficiency negatively affects immigrant children is evident in their low enrollment rates for early-education programs across the nation, says Gelatt. As many as 12 percent of children of U.S. immigrants ages 3 to 5 are not enrolled in school at all, according to this national data tool released by the Urban Institute.
The solution seems easy: just provide translated resources for immigrant parents so they don't have to rely on their kids for important information. But that's easier said than done. How many languages is it feasible to translate materials into? How do organizations and lawmakers decide which of these languages to pick and choose?
The D.C. metro area offers an interesting case study to this point. There are language-access laws in place, but diversity makes implementation difficult, says Gelatt. Around 63 percent of linguistically isolated D.C. households speak Spanish, but another 37 percent is a smattering of Asian and other languages.*
Pandya sees a way out, though—two, actually. One is for public organizations to make room in their budget for third-party private companies that offer an immediate, phone translation services. The other is to hire translators from local immigrant groups that are looking to make some extra cash ... just as long as they're not kids.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the language breakdown of linguistically isolated D.C. households—it's 63 percent Spanish (not 45 percent), and 37 percent Asian and other (not only Asian).