On Thursday nights, an old firehouse in Brooklyn transforms into a classroom for foreign language study. NYC Firefighters and other first responders can be heard adapting their New York accents and repeating phrases in Chinese, starting with “ni hao,” or hello.
NYC Firefighters Chinese Immigrants
Outside Asia, New York City has the largest and fastest growing Chinese population. Brooklyn, known as one of the most diverse boroughs of New York City (NYC), is quickly becoming a place of residence for many Chinese immigrants. While the foreign-born Chinese population in NYC increased by 35% between 2000 and 2013, the foreign-born Chinese population in Brooklyn increased by 49% during the same period (The New York Times). So Chinese interpretation and translation services providers are in high demand for pre-planned events – but that is not always the case.
Serving the Community
A dozen firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics are taking Mandarin Chinese classes in an effort to bridge the gap between the city’s growing Chinese population and first responders. The program is funded by the NYC Fire Department Foundation, and was established together with the Phoenix Society – an organization of Asian-American firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and civilian employees. Many first responders agree that Chinese interpreting services providers are vital to emergency workers, but it will improve safety and increase efficiency if they can communicate directly with the people who need their assistance.
Chinese Language School
In the Redhook Brooklyn fire station, first responders dedicate two hours a week to studying Mandarin Chinese with a native Chinese speaker. Classes can be challenging given their frantic schedules, but most of the students feel it’s well worth their while. Psychologists’ research shows that speaking to people directly in their native language gives them increased confidence and is more comforting especially during a time of crisis. According to a report by NBC, Chinese immigrants in Brooklyn initially are very surprised to hear a first responder speaking to them in Chinese. Doraun Ellis, a first responder, explains, “I’m a, you know, 6 –foot-2 black guy. They were not expecting me to speak Mandarin.” But for many it is also a relief to know that they can say a few words in their native language and establish some communication.
Bridging the Gap
Overall, the goal of the program is to continue to find ways to become more inclusive of languages spoken by dominant immigrant groups and bridge the communication gap. Although having bilingual first responders that are fluent in both Chinese and English is the most effective, it is also helpful for non-native Chinese speakers to be able to communicate with the community that they serve, even if it is at a very basic level.
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