Donations may help close the ‘digital divide,’ but learning English is key

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News that Hispanic members of South Valley suffer from a “digital divide” is disturbing. Consider these results from a recent poll of 600 people in Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Hollister:

– 37 percent of Hispanics own personal computers, compared to 78 percent of non-Hispanics

– 40 percent of Hispanics have Internet access, compared to 77 percent of non-Hispanics

– 14 percent of Hispanics describe themselves as experienced computer users, compared to 43 percent of non-Hispanics

The research was conducted for Gavilan Community College. Even though college officials expected a gap, they were surprised by the stark difference in computer access and ability between the two groups.

Some folks placed the blame on lower incomes and called on businesses to donate computers to families in need. While that’s a noble idea, we think Gavilan instructor Margi Bryson hit closer to the cause of the problem.

“I think it would be hard for students who don’t speak English because most computer programs are in English,” Bryson told reporter Christine Tognetti. “It would be difficult for me to go to another country and try to learn how to use a computer in a foreign language.”

The digital divide between Hispanics and non-Hispanics is just another practical reason why it’s so important for immigrants to learn English.

Computers are ubiquitous and the Internet is pervasive in American society. Basic computer skills are a key factor in determining anyone’s income potential.

The vast majority of the computer software, hardware and manuals available in the United States are presented in English. Although many computer companies produce their products in languages other than English, those are mostly sold in countries where other languages dominate. And that doesn’t address the problem of the Internet, where English is the prevailing language.

No matter how many computers are donated or how many are available for use in South Valley’s libraries, schools and community centers, language is going to be a gating factor to learning to use them.

Encouraging donation of computers to low-income families is a great idea. So is expanding access at schools, libraries and community centers. But for those programs to be as successful as possible, the users will need to master English.

This is not an argument for adopting an official language or a diatribe against bilingualism or multiculturalism. It’s a practical observation that may be the key to bridging South Valley’s digital divide.

To respond to this editorial or comment on this issue, please send or bring letters to Editor, Hollister Free Lance, 350 Sixth St., Hollister, Calif. 95023 or fax to 637-4104 or e-mail to [email protected]

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