Local News

What language do you speak at home?

SEBRING -Julio Perez came from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia in the 1960s to make a better life for himself. He didn't know how to speak English, but if he wanted something at a store, he'd point out the items he needed. Then somebody told him that the best way to learn the tongue was to buy English-language newspapers and watch a lot of English-language TV. Perez proceeded to do just that, teaching himself a new language through self-immersion.
Today, Perez, whose Julio's Latin Market in Sebring is well known for its Cuban sandwiches, is bilingual although Spanish is his native language. Over the years, his children, who have grown up in the United States and speak English fluently, have become more proficient in Spanish and one of his grand-daughters, who is now living with him, is fast picking up Spanish even though she is 21 years old. Perez learned English to get ahead in life, he said, but knowing two languages gives people an advantage in the workplace, so he wants to make sure his grandchildren are proficient in both English and Spanish. Perez's situation is very common among immigrants and could be a growing factor in Highlands County. According to a 2007-2010 American Community Survey, one of out five Highlands County residents 5 years and older speak a language other than English at home, and 80 percent of the 17,492 listed Spanish as their home language. About 40 percent of those who don't speak English at home said they speak the language less than "very well,"according to the survey. The highest number of such residents was in the Avon Park area, which also had the largest pocket countywide of non-English speakers. These local figures could change in the 2011 American Community Survey. While the 2011 figures for Highlands County were not immediately available, the 2007-2010 survey percentage of county residents who didn't consider themselves proficient in English was lower than the 2011 national rate. This data, compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau,is used by the federal government in deciding whether voters in certain local areas need language assistance services under the Voting Rights Act. It is also used to allocate educational funds to states to help school students who may be struggling with English. Highlands County Supervisor of Elections Penny Ogg said the Department of Justice has not notified them that they need to provide language assistance to voters. That could change if the county starts to meet the demographic requirements under the voting rights law, based on Census findings. The law mandates that language assistance be provided to voters in areas where more than 10,000 or over 5 percent of voting age citizens belong to a single minority language group, have depressed literacy rates, and do not speak English very well, according to the Department of Justice. While ballots in Highlands County are printed only in English now, the changing demographics has been reflected in the number of students who are considered English Language Learners at the Highlands County School District. Last school year, 679 students were enrolled in the English as a Second Language program, where support services were provided to students in their respective classrooms, said the district's Director of Elementary Programs Andrew Lethbridge. Another 175 were former ELL students who were being monitored, he added. The largest concentration of ELL students was at Lake Country Elementary School, which had 118, followed by 69 from Avon Elementary School. The growth in the county's Hispanic population has been mirrored in the number of ELL students in the school district, Lethbridge said, who emphasized that not all Hispanic students are not fluent in English. The Census Bureau estimated that more than 300 languages are spoken in the U.S., including 134 Native American languages. Locally, while Spanish is the predominant other language in Highlands County, residents here were also speaking German, Dutch, Arabic, Italian, Yiddish, Portuguese and even Tagalog at home, according to data provided by the Centers for Disease Control. The information, which was last updated in 2007, listed 16 other languages that county residents spoke at home. English and Spanish was followed by German, French and Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were six languages in 2011, other than English and Spanish, spoken at home by at least one million people: Chinese (2.9 million), Tagalog (1.6 million), Vietnamese (1.4 million), French (1.3 million), German (1.1 million) and Korean (1.1 million). Some like Jamaican Aston Waugh speak English and Jamaican "Patois" (pronounced "patwah"), which is a dialect of English. It's got some broken grammar, Waugh explained, and a more sing-song cadence. English speakers who listen carefully can understand what is being said. Waugh, who has a Caribbean food store in Sebring, said he has not encountered any problems from local residents because of his accent, and while there are people from the Caribbean who live here, he has not seen their numbers grow lately, he added.