In New York, a quarter of us struggle with English. Whether that’s a barrier depends on what we speak

“Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” asks the teacher. The whole class falters. They mutter amongst themselves, not sure how to answer. “ Don’t be too honest,” he instructs in Mandarin. “Don’t speak that much. Just say ‘no.’”


The teacher, Huanyao Situ, stands at the front of the room at the Selfhelp Senior Center in Flushing. Beside him a Word document is projected on the wall. It says “application for naturalization.” He is quizzing one student, Danqing Ouyang, 71, about how many children she has, how long she’s been in the United States, and what part of China she is from. The lesson is taught half in Mandarin, half in English. The students are 24 Chinese speakers, all over 65. The mock citizenship test is making them all a little nervous.


“Sorry, I’ve just started and there are so many words I don’t know,” Ouyang said in Mandarin when her interview is over. She retakes her seat and another student is beckoned up to the front. The room is lit with fluorescent lights and the students sit on party chairs with turquoise faux leather seats. Soon Situ calls a break and the students chat among themselves. One man in the back nods off quietly, holding a magazine rolled up in his hands.

Flushing seniors in a large Chinese community want to learn English, but can get by without it

Where Learning English is Nice but Not Necessary

Ouyang has lived in the U.S. for five years. In Flushing, she is able to make deposits at the bank, shop for vegetables at the grocery store, and order at local restaurants—all in Mandarin. She is one of the 23 percent of New Yorkers who have limited English proficiency, more than five percent of whom speak Mandarin Chinese at home. But if she ever wants to understand her electric bills, or leave Flushing, or apply for citizenship, she needs English. So twice a week she leaves her Chinese-only comfort zone to attend the citizenship test prep class at the Selfhelp Senior Center.


“It’s very practical,” said Ouyang in Mandarin. She has wire glasses perched on the top of her nose and black hair folded up on top of her head. “We learn traffic rules, basic laws, what we need to know as U.S. residents.”

The Selfhelp Senior Center is funded by New York City’s Department for the Aging. This means that any senior resident of the city can register at the center and receive its services free of charge. This is vitally important for the Chinese community in Flushing. A report by the Center For An Urban Future found that 22 percent of the state’s Asian seniors (65 and older) live in poverty. In Queens specifically, the number of older adults living at or below the poverty line in the borough increased by 10 percent over the last decade. Many of Queens’ seniors need the Chinese-language services provided by the SelfHelp Center, and they cannot afford them anywhere else.


“Who is the vice president of the U.S.?” asked Situ in English during another mock citizenship test. The students looked at each other in confusion.


“Then what’s this?” Situ asked as he picks up a pen.




“Great! The vice president is ‘pens, Pence,’” he says. The students chuckle, and write it down on their “Key to Citizenship Test” prep books. One of the students is using an online translator and her phone intermittently blares words in English: “Permanent!” “Republic!” "Intense!”

By Wufei Yu and Moira Lavelle

Situ has taught this class for more than 10 years. He has been a U.S. citizen since 2014. The class material is taken directly from the N-400 form for the application for naturalization (hence the biographical questions) and a list of 100 civic questions that may be asked in the immigration interview (these cover the basics of American politics, history, geography, and current affairs.) Sometimes the students focus on pronunciation, sometimes on writing or reading. They dutifully put on their reading glasses and jot down whatever Situ writes on the whiteboard or shows on the slideshow, letter by letter.

The question about being a member of the Communist Party is on form N-400, right above questions asking if an applicant has ever been a member of “any other totalitarian party” or a ‘terrorist organization.” It’s a complicated question for elderly Chinese nationals, who were young adults during the Cultural

Revolution in China. Many of the students in the class have a fondness for the Communist Party but read newspapers funded by anti-government organizations in the breaks between class. The yes or no question on the application for naturalization seems simplified, but Situ understands their concern — and also what the correct answer is, the answer that will put them closer to naturalization.


Shengli Yang, 75, “definitely” wants to become a U.S. citizen. He sits in the back of the classroom wearing thick glasses with heavy black rims. He lives with his wife, who is already a US citizen. “My wife is here,” he said in Mandarin. “Back in mainland China I don’t have any relatives or friends.” He hopes to apply for naturalization in three years.


Yang is also in the class because wants to improve his English to speak with the locals. He has lived in the US for two years. In Flushing he can play Chinese chess with friends in the park, grab authentic Chengdu-style street food in food courts, and attend church services in Chinese. But when he lived Forest Hills he found it difficult to get around—he had to mime what he wanted at the grocery store. “I would want to buy flour but just couldn’t act it out,” he said in Mandarin.

Limei Situ is already a U.S. citizen, but still comes to Citizenship Preparation class twice a week. She says she’s in the class to learn English, to “review the old and so learn the new,” a take on a Confucian saying. But she’s just as enthusiastic about the tai chi class and computer classes offered at the Selfhelp Center. At 68, it gives her something to do instead of sitting home alone. This is the case for many of the seniors in the English class, many of whom seem to be attending mainly for company and something to do. After class all the students walk together to lunch, the menu is listed in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.

Currently almost a third of the Department of the Aging’s clients speak Chinese (this includes Cantonese, Mandarin and other dialects). But it is likely that demand for programs like those offered at the center in Flushing will only grow in upcoming

years. Between 2000 and 2016, New York City's Asian senior population increased by 147 percent.


This fiscal year, the department’s budget increased slightly — by six percent to approximately $387 million. This is less than one percent of the city’s total budget.

Jianwen Zhang, program coordinator at the Selfhelp Innovative Senior Center, says that the waitlist to join the Selfhelp center is always full. The English classes are a small part of the needed services of the center. Once clients are registered at the center they can take karaoke, dancing, tai chi, computer literacy classes, and more. They can have case workers who will help them pay bills and sign up for doctors appointments. “We even offer a Spanish class,” said Zhang. “The seniors seem to enjoy it.”


Yuejiao Lin, 82, is at the Selfhelp senior center every day. She was a university professor and studied chemical engineering at Nanjing University, one of the top universities in China. She comes to the English classes to keep her mind sharp. “When I have some spare time, why not come here and learn English,” she said, “or computers, or go to exercise classes. There is a lot to learn here.”

A 3,000-mile Trip Around a Language Barrier

Since the driver’s license test is not available in their language in New York, some Punjabis make a trip to California

By Wufei Yu 

For Punjabis in New York, applying for a driver’s license often starts with a 3,000-mile westbound expedition to get over the language barrier.


Four years ago, Narinder Singh, 42, of Queens, heard the news that California had officially included Punjabi in the state’s driver's license test. Right away, he booked a six-hour flight from New York to California. The reason: a driver’s license had been a prerequisite no matter where he wanted to work in New York City. He had come to America three years earlier, and although Narinder learned how to drive when he was only 10 — back in Punjab, India — New York does not provide the written test in the language he speaks, Punjabi.


He stayed in California for a whole year, scrutinizing every line in the learner’s manual, and eventually got his learner’s permit and then his driver’s license from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. For Narinder, the flight and the time spent living in California were worth it. He came back to New York, worked as a truck driver for a year, and gradually established himself as a construction worker in Richmond Hill.


Hundreds of his fellow Punjabis in New York have made similar trips to California to get a license to drive. Upon his return, Narinder told fellow Punjabis here that he hoped that someday soon, New York’s Punjabis would no longer travel thousands of miles for a basic test offered in their own language.


But four years later, the 7,600 Punjabis in Richmond Hill are still waiting for that.


Meanwhile, driving jobs became the talk of the town in Jackson Heights and Ridgewood after the Department of Motor Vehicles in New York announced, on March 26, that learner permit tests would be available in Nepali and Bengali. The learner permit test in New York is available in 15 languages, in fact, but not Punjabi. Punjabi immigration to New York City has been steady, with no signs of stopping, but the language is still missing from public services.


“I feel discriminated,” said Sant Singh, a representative of Gurdwara Sahib, a Sikh temple in Richmond Hills, Queens. A place of worship for Sikhs, the gurdwara is the epicenter of the local Punjabi community. Most Punjabis from India follow Sikhism, the fifth largest religion in the world. Upholding the concept of “sangat,” or congregation, Punjabis discuss pressing issues among themselves after every Sunday’s service at the gurdwara. And the Punjabi language access issue in the Department of Motor Vehicles is near the top of the list.




Over the past two years, dozens of Punjabis in their 20s and 30s told Sant they would love to work as Uber or Lyft drivers, he said. More than half of the Punjabi residents in Richmond Hill tend to eke out a living by driving, as they tend to love outdoor jobs like trucking and construction, according to Sant. But these are not possible without a driver’s license.


The latest American Community Survey, released by United States Census Bureau in 2017, for the first time singled out Punjabi instead of including it in the category of “Other Indic Languages.” The report shows that among the more than 280,000 Punjabis in the United States, 40.7 percent “do not speak English well.” According to representatives of Gurdwara Sahib, the vast majority of Punjabi had limited access to tertiary education and financial resources when they first migrated, even though Indians are among the most well-off national groups in the United States.


The first Punjabis from India arrived in New York in the 1960s and 1970s—earlier than most of the other ethnic groups from the Indian subcontinent. The Punjabi immigration to the city has been steady since what has come to be called the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, which heavily damaged the Sikh Golden Temple in Punjab, the preeminent pilgrimage site for most Punjabis from India, according to the book “ethNYcity: The Nations, Tongues, and Faiths of Metropolitan New York.”


The Punjabi population in metro New York had reached about 80,000, as of 2010. But compared to Nepalis, whose population in New York grew from 9,000 in 2009 to 140,000 in 2015, the Punjabis are less visible, according to recent data.


“Everyone needs to be able to feel that they're included,” said New York State Assemblyman Michael G. Miller of the 38th Assembly District in Queens. “Learning the written requirements to drive, they should be able to understand them. That's better for them and better for us.” But he knows the process is not easy, as his effort to help the Punjabi community four years ago has so far not worked out.


In 2014, Miller drafted a bill together with community leaders that required hospitals to provide Punjabi patients with medical forms in their language. It was referred to the Health Committee of the New York State Assembly on Jan. 8, 2015, but never went on to a vote. So Miller introduced the bill again this year.


In the meantime, the Punjabi community has reached out to Mohan Gyawali Chhetri, the Nepali community leader who successfully helped raise the idea of including the Nepali language in the learner permit test.


Chhetri believes language is the key to open the door of acclimation for new immigrants. But for the Punjabis in New York City, the key still seems to be further down the road.

Non-English Speakers Cheated on Their Rights to Vote

While the City Council quibbles over policy with the Board of Elections, too many New Yorkers still cannot vote because they don’t understand English

They’ve been turned away from poll sites, told that speaking in

an unauthorized language was illegal in the voting area; they’ve

been forced to fill out affidavit ballots; or they simply never

showed up because they knew they wouldn’t understand a

word on the ballot.

This is what can happen to the tens of thousands of voters in

New York City who are citizens but not proficient in English.

Their language lag, in essence, becomes a barrier to how they

exercise their right to vote.

New York City is the most diverse city in the United States,

where 49.4 percent of its citizens are speakers of a non-English

language according to Data USA. Yet, polling sites in the city fail

to provide enough language interpreters who can cater to the needs of such a language-diverse population. According to Section 203 of the federal Voting Rights Act, cities must provide interpreters every time there are more than 10,000 people of a language minority group in a single jurisdiction. That means in the Bronx they must offer Spanish, in Kings County they must offer Spanish and Chinese, in Manhattan they must offer Spanish and Chinese, and in Queens they must offer Spanish, Chinese, Asian Indian (an undefined term used by the government, later designated as Bengali in New York City), and Korean.


Even though the law, on its surface, tries to address the language needs of a diverse population, limiting the requirement to districts with more than 10,000 people who speak a particular language leaves out hundreds of others who speak different languages. That creates a barrier for all the voters who don’t speak the few provided languages, or who only speak Russian, Italian, Haitian Creole, Polish, French, Yiddish, Urdu, and Arabic, among others.

In New York City where voter turnout is especially low—47 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots during the general elections in 2018—even fewer voters go to the polls in neighborhoods with a high population of naturalized citizens, said Eric Friedman, assistant executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board. The lack of interpreters could be one of the reasons. According to the group’s analysis, over 3,700 election districts in the city have at least 50 people who’ve been disenfranchised from voting because they don’t understand English and don’t have access to interpreters in their own language.

In an attempt to counteract this discrepancy, for the past two years, the New York City Council and the mayor’s office started two pilot programs to offer interpreters for Russian, Haitian Creole, Italian, Polish, Yiddish, and Arabic.

Yet the Board of Elections, the government body in charge of overseeing all things elections, felt that this is an effort they’re not willing to make. In the 2018 midterm election, the board forced interpreters to stay at least 100 feet from the voting site—many stood outside soaked in the rain. Then, the Board of Elections sued the city for attempted electioneering and causing the possibility of “giving a preferred candidate an advantage.” According to the lawsuit, the council could be offering an interpreter in a language that might be helpful only to voters backing one candidate, not all the people involved in the race, hence improperly affecting the outcome of elections. A motion that the State Supreme and Appellate courts then overruled.

“Voting should be easy no matter what language you speak,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a statement in February 2019, in response to the Board of Elections’ attempt to bar interpreters.  The issue is still resonating, as the April hearing showed.

“This is illegal electoral suppression,” said Council Member Mark Treyger, raising his voice into the microphone, at the hearing of the committee on governmental affairs. “The city is putting its money where its mouth is,” he said, referring to how the council has agreed to fund interpretation programs. “Yet there is a lack of will to cooperate from the Board of Elections.”

Los Angeles and Boston go above and beyond what is required by law in providing interpreters in many more languages than are available in New York, the council member argued, and added that these are “humane and logical” policies. He pointed out that there was no reason New York couldn’t do the same.

The federal Voting Rights Act “should be a floor, not a ceiling,” for access to voting for New Yorkers, Treyger said. He proposed the introduction of a local law providing a base of at least six languages, and four more according to where they are needed, varying by district.

But the Board of Elections isn’t in favor of this proposed law. According to Michael Ryan, its executive director, “there’s really no daylight” between what the council and the elections board are trying to do. However, the Board of Elections argues that providing an additional language beyond what is required by the U.S. Department of Justice could leave them vulnerable to legal challenge by language parties who could be excluded. So the council and the board cannot come seem to a compromise.

“What’s the criteria for choosing who gets access?” Ryan asked, for example, adding that the city will be getting all sorts of lawsuits from people who feel they’ve not been catered to if the council passes the law boosting the number of languages to at least six. 

There must be a state law requesting more language interpreters for the Board of Elections to collaborate in the city’s efforts, he argues, because the board adheres first and foremost to state law. Waving the book of state laws around while he spoke, Ryan explained that this issue “should just be put to rest for now,” until the state puts a legally mandated procedure in place under a state law, as the Board of Elections has advised. This would make the process fair, according to Ryan.

But, such technicalities matter little to the people affected by this issue. They don't matter to someone who speaks Urdu or Arabic, for example, if they can’t read the ballot and don’t have anyone on hand at the polling site who could help them. And many city officials aren’t happy about that fact.

“Ensuring language access in polling sites is a no-brainer in this city, but rather than expanding our democracy, the Board of Elections is threatening to shrink it—all because of a bureaucratic technicality,” said Council Member Margaret S. Chin in a statement.

Organizations such as the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund have also been vocal about how New York City is impacted by this lack of interpreters, especially within the Asian community. From 1998 to 2005, they have sent complaint letters to the Board of Elections every year arguing that there should be more done for Chinese and Korean speakers: In 2006 they even sued the board for failing to provide voting information in these languages.

The lawsuit is "a good read," said Jerry Vatamala, the group’s attorney who is litigating these language access violations, explaining that the suit extensively details common violations that occur throughout the city.

His clients, Byung Soo Park, Mae Chin Eng, Shiny Liu, Kit Fong Yeung, and Younh Sook Na, all felt they encountered difficulties in exercising their right to vote for over 20 years because of all the bureaucratic quibbles. So they sued, arguing that poll workers had never been trained to provide legally-required language assistance—there’s no telephone assistance in Chinese available, no translation of the Board of Elections website in Chinese, no adequately translated and effective notices to voters, and a failure to provide readable and correctly translated ballots in Chinese and Korean, for example. This case was settled out of court in 2008. The Board entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund which requires them to fully comply with their obligations under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.  The Board must meet with the Chinese and Korean language advisory group twice a year to discuss language assistance issues.  The memorandum is still in effect.

No matter the lawsuits, the continued legal wrangling means that come the next national election in 2020, tens of thousands of New York City voters may still not be able to understand their ballot sheets, or their voting instructions.


And the end result could mean that the outcome of the election, at least here in the city, might be affected.

By Sofia Quaglia 

Adult English Classes On the Edge

The need is fierce, but shifts in funding could leave some hardworking students out

By Moira Lavelle


The students look to Eve Lucano, 33, when they don’t understand the question. On May 7th, they are learning the first conditional, and sometimes the teacher doesn’t repeat the words enough times. The students sitting in front of and beside Lucano turn to her and whisper “My boss will be angry?”


She nods. “Yes. Will be.”


She quickly completes the sentence: “My boss will be angry if I am late every day.”


Beside her, neon-green and orange worksheets act as wallpaper, featuring self-portraits of varying levels of artistic skill. “My name is Otabek” says one paper. The others were filled out by students named Roberto, Saul, Nazria, and Efren. They are from Uzbekistan,Venezuela, Haiti, Uzbekistan, and Ecuador.


English is offered daily at the Queens Community House, and classes of every level are full. Like many other community centers in New York, Queens Community House receives funding for these services from the New York City and New York State Education Departments. This year, both these sources of funding are at risk of being cut.


Originally from Peru, Lucano has been learning English for six months. She says she really enjoys the classes, and emphasizes how important they are to her: “Because I live in New York, I need to speak English well. I need it for work, and for the school of my kids.” Lucano has two sons, and wants to be able to communicate with their teachers. Currently, she cannot.


Her English teacher, Will Jong, says this is the most common worry of his students. “They’re concerned about parent-teacher conferences,” he said. Jong said he also frequently gets questions about work and job applications. He tries to focus his classes on these topics, on parts of the language that will be immediately useful to his students.


Next door, Yulduz Razikova teaches a beginner-level English class. Today they’re focusing on classroom vocabulary—‘book,” “pen,” “paper.” Razikova says the words aloud and the students repeat them, following along on a worksheet.


This is Gulnora Husenova’s first week in class. Husenova, 50, speaks Uzbek, Russian, and Farsi. Using Google Translate on her phone, she explains that she needs to learn English to work, and that she’s very happy to have found this class. She says she was a historian in her country, but here she could work in any field. English will be her fourth language.


Funding for beginner English classes like those at the Queens Community House have been threatened as city, state, and federal budgets shifted. At the city level, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2019 executive budget, released in April, did not include continuing funding for several one-shot programs, including adult literacy education programs.


De Blasio blamed the cut on state funding: "We were able to beat back some of the cuts, but we still suffered a serious blow to the city's finances," he said last month at a budget presentation at City Hall. He said state budget cuts led to, among other things, “$25 million lost in education funding."


The City Council pushed back on these budget cuts, and after several back-and-forths, Melanie Hartzog, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, said the city would be continuing funding for several of the initiatives it had planned to cut, including adult literacy education. So the main funding threat is no longer coming from the city.


The New York State budget is also set to cut education funding. This year’s New York State budget allocates more than $35 billion for education overall, which includes $7.3 million for the Adult Literacy Education programs. Next year’s budget cuts another million for Adult Literacy Education, leaving the funding at about $6.3 million.


In February, New York State Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Democrat from Queens, and Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, a Democrat representing Albany, sent a letter to the speaker of the assembly asking for a state investment of $15.3 million in Adult Literacy Education programs. They estimated these programs serve 7,000 students every year, and could serve more. In the letter they stated that a change in federal policies will shift funding from beginner-level English classes to higher-level English and citizenship classes.  (The policy in question is the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which was reauthorized five years ago but will go into effect now.)


All these shifts in federal policies, state, and city budgets could mean that there is less funding for English classes like those at the Queens Community House. This would mean students like Eve Lucano would be left without an option for free English classes.  


Lucano works as a home attendant for elderly patients who speak Spanish. But she wants to learn more, she says she needs to focus on her grammar.


She pulls out a notecard on which she has written a sentence, and reads it out: “Between my job, my home, and my children, I don’t even have time for myself.”

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