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Survey of LOTEs in New York City Communities

Marcia Wigley and Alissa Hartig

     Pakistani-Americans represent a significant population within New York City, and form the base of many smaller communities within the city. Although official census data for this specific ethnic group was unavailable, statistics for the overall Asian population in New York City show 512,719 residents in 1990. This reflects a 104.76% increase in New York City's Asian-American population between 1980 and 1990 and includes many Pakistani immigrants. Pakistani Americans, however, because of a lack of acknowledgement on the part of the government, have been placed in a disadvantaged position in relation to English- and Spanish-speakers. Resources such as Urdu-language interpreters and printed materials are either scarce or completely unavailable, thus creating significant obstacles for many members of this group who wish to participate more fully in the community at large.

Intra-community and Perspective Background

     During the on-site research phase of this project, the subjects whom we interviewed revealed much about the linguistic diversity of New York's Pakistani community. The specific population that we focused our study on was those Pakistani- Americans living in Jackson Heights, Queens. This group intermingles with a large community of Indian immigrants in an area centered around 74th Street between Roosevelt and 37th Avenues. Both of these groups, along with many other Asian ethno- linguistic communities, help make up Jackson Heights' 10,824 Asian- or Pacific-Island- language speakers -- 9.0% of this area's total population. Of these Asian LOTE speakers, 7,069 census respondents (5.9% of the overall population of Jackson Heights) reported not to speak English "very well." The two of us who conducted these interviews come from ethnicities other than Pakistani. One of us is Jamaican-Irish and the other is of mixed Northern and Eastern European descent, thus neither of us would be easily mistaken as a member of the Pakistani community.

     In Pakistan alone there are several different languages, although Urdu is the dominant language and the one spoken by the greatest number of Pakistanis. Each Pakistani's linguistic identity may vary due to boundaries such as class or age. A person that has had certain benefits like education or travel may be more likely to know more than one language. One might learn some Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi or even Arabic. An older Pakistani may know more of the languages used in India because of histrionic circumstances. In 1946 a religious war raged and eventually separated India and Pakistan along the boundaries we acknowledge today. Therefore, because of their formerly direct relationship to India, many older Pakistanis were raised speaking Hindi or Punjabi in addition to Urdu. Although younger Pakistanis may know some words of such languages as Punjabi or Hindi, they do not have the same relationship with these languages and do not use these languages as fluently as older people might.

Inter-community Background

     Bordering this community is a large Korean-speaking Population, some of whom provide services, which cater to speakers of Indian and Pakistani LOTE. At a newspaper stand staffed by a woman who reported that she spoke only Korean and English (based on her apparent confusion and pidgin-like responses during our interview with her, it seemed that she was not at a high level of proficiency in English), we found signs written in Urdu, Hindi, and English, advertising phone cards sold within. This same shop sells newspapers written in Hindi. The woman behind the counter, however, reported that she spoke neither Hindi nor Urdu.

     What was more surprising than this seemingly paradoxical observation was the fact that the store seemed to be fairly successful. At the time we entered, there were many patrons from the Hindi- and Urdu-speaking communities. What this seems to demonstrate is that this storekeeper has either developed an excellent means of non- verbal cues in order to conduct common business transactions with her patrons or that the Hindi- and Urdu-speaking community has enough competency in English (likely aided by some form of non-verbal communication) to conduct common business transactions in English. Although it is also possible that these individuals also speak Korean and have managed to accommodate this shopkeeper, none of the Indo-Pakistani respondents that we interviewed claimed any knowledge of Korean and, in general, contact between these communities appears to be limited. What is interesting about this situation is that speakers of Hindi and Urdu, although they are likely to have some level of competency in English, are still choosing to purchase printed materials written in their LOTEs.

     Despite the rather distinct separation between the Korean and Indo-Pakistani language groups in this area, there seems to be a greater level of accommodation among Indian and Pakistani LOTE speakers. Many storefront signs are printed in both Hindi and Urdu. However, the separation is still clear. When we interviewed the owner of an Urdu-language bookstore and asked whether he spoke Hindi as well as Urdu and English, he replied: "No, those are the other ones." He seemed to take great pride in speaking Urdu, and when we expressed an interest in purchasing a beginning Urdu alphabet book and an Urdu newspaper, he quickly gave them both to us for free. For him, it was flattering that "outsiders" were taking a positive interest in his culture-- especially at a time when Pakistan is being shown in an unfavorable light by the American media.

     His reaction was not the only one of its kind. When we interviewed an older man who was running a street stand selling Islam-related items, he was delighted to witness our interest in this part of Pakistani culture. He offered us a copy of the Qur'an and gave us a bracelet with a Qur'anic verse inscribed upon it. This man has lived in the United States for thirty-one years and worked for the United Nations as a liaison from the Pakistani Office of Foreign Affairs for thirty. During our interview with this man we asked him if he was Pakistani, but he was quick to state that after thirty-one years in this country, he is an American. His son, he said, was even educated in the United States. Becoming an American, however, has not meant full assimilation. He still retains his religion, two languages besides English (Urdu and Punjabi), and a strong sense of pride in his first culture.

     At the Sahil Sari Palace, a business listed on a Pakistani community website (www.getpakistan.com), we found that no one associated with the business was Pakistani or even Urdu-speaking. The shopkeepers stated that they were of Indian descent and directed us instead to Bombay Jewelers. Here, we were introduced to a younger man from India, whom we then interviewed. He did not speak Urdu either, but he did speak an impressive variety of other languages, among them: Punjabi, Hindi, Bengali, English, and some Spanish. He stated that the language he uses in daily transactions depends on the region that the customer is from and that person's fluency in English. He said that many Bengali-speaking Indians have recently immigrated to New York, thus creating a population that has had little time to develop high proficiency in English. With these individuals, transactions are usually carried out in Bengali. However, he also maintained that he usually ends up speaking English with most customers, including members of the Pakistani community.

     It seems that, in general, rather than accommodating each other linguistically by learning each other's mother tongues, members of the Indian and Pakistani communities often opt for the use of English as a lingua franca for basic interactions. Perhaps it is for this reason that businesses with only monolingual English speakers on staff, such as the Payless Shoe Source on Seventy-fourth Street can survive when they are completely surrounded by other businesses that are willing to accommodate linguistically for either Hindi or Urdu speakers. Based on these observations, it seems as though speaking Urdu or Hindi has become less of a necessity within the community than a point of pride and cultural solidarity in both the Pakistani and Indian communities respectively.

     Language serves as a boundary for Pakistanis as an ethnic group in as vital a way as does dance, appearance, cuisine, or religion. Governmental services, medical services, a primary public school and stores within the community were explored to see how this part of Pakistani culture is being articulated daily and to what extent these languages aid in preserving Pakistani culture within American society. Our data from on-site interviews and background research provided us with evidence of institutional ignorance towards Urdu-speakers, but private support for the language.

The Public School System

     In this particular group of Pakistanis in Jackson Heights, we found that many communicated with one another in the language of Urdu, even though they knew how to speak "Standard" English. This is a choice for many Pakistanis as an agent for keeping their languages alive and in doing so, their culture. PS 30's students speak over 100 different languages and come from 120 different countries. Fifty-five percent of children in this school were born in the United States but have learned Urdu as their primary language. Also, many of these children learn English at school and assimilate with more ease than the average Korean- or Spanish-speaking child. Urdu speakers in this school's ESL program make up less than 30% of the overall LOTE population in PS 30's program. There are about 300 children in PS 30 who speak Urdu as their primary language and who were born in Pakistan. However, the school does not publish literature or letters that accommodate Urdu-speaking parents.

Governmental Services

     To gain a better perspective on the provision of Urdu-language materials in governmental institutions, we interviewed representatives from services such as courthouses, police departments, homeless shelters, hospitals and social security offices. The courthouses in the eastern district (Jackson Heights) say that supply interpreters of any language upon demand. However, an interpreter must be demanded before a case comes to trial, in order to reserve one. Social security offices do not have Urdu-language pamphlets; they only carry Spanish-language ones. If someone wants to get information but does not speak English, he or she must find his or her own interpreter. Both the 114th Precinct and The Regal Heights Rehabilitation and Health Care Center agreed that LOTE speakers who happen to be on staff rather than specially-trained interpreters provide 90% of their LOTE translation services. In some hospital-related cases, a device called a "communication board" is used to facilitate communication with speakers of LOTEs who don't speak English or Spanish. Essentially, this is a form of pictionary. The hospital worker draws pictures of what he or she would like to communicate on a board and brings it to a shop owner or other member of the community who speaks the LOTE in question. The LOTE-speaker then writes a phonetic transcription of the message on the board in his or her LOTE. Overall, we have found that resources for Urdu-speakers, or speakers of LOTEs other than Spanish, are very limited.

Community Organizations

     In the Pakistani community, Urdu plays an important role in community groups, and especially in religious organizations such as mosques. This shared language establishes a sense of family or community. It is a means to set the group aside by creating a boundary of language. The Urdu language is preserved within the Pakistani community not only through the mosque (where services are in Urdu as well as in Arabic), but also through specialized media such as the Pakistan Television Network (Brooklyn and Bronx: Sunday 11Am, Cablevision 40; Queens and West Brooklyn: Saturday Noon, Basic Cable 80 and 95), RBC Radio, and PZB (Pakistan Zinda Bad), along with other newspapers and newsletters.

     Another way for tying the community together is to create organizations where members can gather together. Although many of these organizations are more religious- based than language-based, they still provide an opportunity for Urdu-speakers to gather together, thus fostering exchanges in this LOTE. One such group is Ahmadiyya, an Islamic movement in which young, American-born Muslim women join together to spread the message of Islam. Many times, groups of women from the same ethnic community join together in these groups, as is the case with many Pakistanis.


     Based on our research, resources for speakers of LOTEs used by Pakistani- Americans are very limited. Although this case study of the Jackson Heights Pakistani community is not necessarily representative of the situation of all Pakistanis in New York, the almost complete lack of governmental support for these LOTEs even in a community with such a large population of speakers seems to demonstrate a microcosm that could well represent the macrocosm as a whole. In short, future governmental allocations to support these LOTEs should be taken into consideration.

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