Whitehall draws large number of non-English speakers

| Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Although visitors might mistake Pittsburghese for a foreign language, only about 5 percent of Western Pennsylvanians regularly speak something other than English, according to Census Bureau figures released on Thursday.

One exception is Whitehall, where about 13 percent of the borough's 13,973 residents speak a foreign language at home, according to the figures. Saraswati Bhandari, 32, is one of them.

The political refugee was born in Bhutan and moved to a refugee camp in Nepal when she was 10. Her native language is Nepali, but she picked up some English while working for two years as a housekeeper in Virginia.

“Reading and writing is difficult for me, but I'm trying hard,” Bhandari said.

The census figures come from the bureau's ongoing American Community Survey and shed light on some little-known facts about the changing region, including:

• Despite big drops in manufacturing, nearly a quarter of Vandergrift's adult population holds jobs in that sector.

• Canonsburg has one of the highest preschool and school-age populations in Western Pennsylvania.

• About 79 percent of people 25 and older in Fox Chapel have at least a bachelor's degree, one of the highest rates in the metro area.

• About 70 percent of men in Upper St. Clair and 70 percent of women in Fox Chapel are married, some of the highest rates in the area.

• About 20 percent of the men and women in McKees Rocks are married, one of the lowest rates.

Bhandari moved to the Whitehall Place apartments — a haven for refugees — a year ago and, for the past five months, has been one of about 100 people from at least a dozen countries attending free English classes at Whitehall Place. The Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council provides the classes.

She said she's taking the classes so she can communicate with her two sons' doctors and teachers, and she hopes to get her GED and work in child care.

Cindy Nelson, coordinator/instructor at the literacy council's Families for Learning Center in Whitehall Place, said the students come from South Sudan, Liberia, Kenya, Turkey, Russia, Bosnia and Nepal.

“When you have a variety, everyone has to speak English,” she said. “If there's only one language in the room, they will speak their language.”

Whitehall police Chief Donald Dolfi said the variety of languages and cultures at Whitehall Place presents his officers with challenges.

“The officers have to demonstrate and use a lot of patience, compassion, but you have to temper that with safety,” Dolfi said. “The officers have to protect themselves and others. It is very challenging,”

With about a decade of experience, however, the officers have learned how to bridge language and cultural barriers, he said.

In Vandergrift, about 23 percent of the adult population works in the manufacturing industry. Steve DelleDonne, the borough secretary, said the Westmoreland County community always had a lot of manufacturing jobs and still has several factories.

“The number of people they employ is nowhere near what it used to be,” he said.

The borough is much more diversified now, he said.

About 15 percent of Canonsburg borough's school-age population is enrolled in preschool or nursery school, according to the census. That compares with an average of 6.8 percent for the Pittsburgh metro area, which includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

“We have a lot of kids,” said Darla Bowman-Monaco, president of the Canon-McMillan school board.

Developers are building housing that attracts young couples who either have children or likely will in the next few years, and the district has been talking about what it needs to do to accommodate the anticipated growth, she said.

“We have to look at it because of the growth,” Bowman-Monaco said.

Rachel Weaver and Brian Bowling are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Weaver can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com. Bowling can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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