Barev-dzez! Hola! Sat Sri Akaal! Ola! Nyob zoo! Kamusta! Merhaba! Salaam! Any given day in the Central Valley, you’ll hear any number of languages spoken and shared. Our area has its own unique demographic make-up and this is the case of every subregion of the state. All of these Californian residents will have children that increasingly speak English, but what is to happen to them in the meantime?
In California government offices throughout the state and county, bilingual services are offered as a result of the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act of 1973. A statewide survey is conducted every two years and provides the governor a snapshot of some of the linguistic needs of the state. The last survey showed that nearly 16 million Californians above the age of 5 speak another language in addition to or other than English. Approximately 44 percent of Californians speak a language other than English at home.
Some bemoan such language diversity, but being a global hub is what powers the Californian economy and creates opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs to build products that are popular throughout the world. Other first-generation immigrants work in the fields, toil in the canneries and package the chickens that we consume in order to give their English-speaking children greater opportunities.
Today many immigrants, when interacting with various government agencies, have to depend on their children, friends and others to help them navigate complex services. Appointments are skipped, canceled and rescheduled based on the availability of those that can help them. Nothing is more important than having greater personal autonomy, and language accessibility broadens that goal. Currently there is a bipartisan effort being led by Valley legislators to make bilingual services easier to access. Assembly Bill 3179 is being jointly authored by Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield), Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), Frank Bigelow (R-Madera), Devon Mathis (R-Porterville), Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), and Ash Kalra (D-San Jose). The bill recognizes Punjabi, a language that is the third-most spoken in the Central Valley, and increases access to all those that interact with all of California’s state agencies in any myriad of languages.
While the large number of Punjabi speakers in the Central Valley is no surprise to the residents who live here, for many in the rest of the state they are only now catching up on learning about the large population. Partly this was due to the census not reporting the Punjabi-speaking population until December 2017 after 17 congressmembers, led by David Valadao and Jim Costa, wrote a letter to the Census Bureau. Historians are aware that the language has been spoken in the state since 1899, when the first Sikhs entered the state through the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco. Punjabi language newspapers have existed since 1913, when the Sikh hero Kartar Singh Sarabha published The Gadhar with the financial support of the Stockton Gurdwara. Today on the airwaves in Fresno County over three radio stations transmit Punjabi language programming.
While their children all speak English, for many parents, grandparents, and other first-generation immigrants, their language skills can be limited. AB 3179 provides greater opportunities for these Californians to participate in all walks of life with greater language accessibility and, most importantly, greater autonomy to live their lives. With bipartisan support from all Valley officials, we are hoping that legislators in other areas of California also understand the importance of expanding access and allowing residents to live a more full life. Their efforts can put the bill in front of Gov. Brown and build a California that celebrates all its residents and revels in its linguistic diversity.
Deep Singh of Fresno is the executive director of the Jakara Movement, a youth development nonprofit and the largest Sikh volunteer organization in the United States. Connect with him at email@example.com.