America has no official language. Instead it has hundreds.


Nearly 400 years ago, Walloon-speaking religious refugees from near what is today roughly the French-Belgian border arrived in a Lenape-speaking archipelago, marking the colonial founding of Manhattan as we know it. Ever more global waves of migration have arrived since, enriching the city not just in practical ways, but also adding to its cultural and artistic texture. Today New York City is the most linguistically diverse urban area in the world.

Now Donald Trump is warning about this linguistic diversity, arguing that New York’s classrooms are overwhelmed by foreign students who speak obscure languages. “They have languages that nobody in this country has ever heard of,” Mr. Trump said, referring to migrants who have recently arrived. “It’s a very horrible thing.”

It’s true, as he suggested, that we don’t have instructors for most of the world’s more than 7,000 languages, so poor is our ability to teach, learn or translate them. But why did Mr. Trump deem this “a very horrible thing,” and not a call to arms for more research and more language teachers? What could make languages — gloriously various natural experiments in human cognition and communication — so frightening?

There are many practical benefits to be found in the knowledge, wisdom and poetry of the languages that immigrants bring with them. A growing body of research has found that linguistic diversity can be good not only for a child’s overall development, but also for their health. The presence of these languages and their speakers continually revitalizes the profound social experiment that is America. We can and should learn how to communicate with them.

But when it comes to languages spoken by immigrants from far-flung places — some primarily oral and used by a small minority — it’s not as simple as hiring more language teachers, or for-profit translation companies. What is needed first is basic research, including documentation by linguists and language communities working in partnership and developing resources like dictionaries and online language archives.

The United States has never had an official language. While English is the de facto lingua franca, it is not standardized in the way France has enshrined Parisian French, or China has promulgated a certain kind of Mandarin. We have our own long history of discriminating against or treating people who speak other languages unfairly, whether the stamping out of Native American languages in residential schools, or punishments for students speaking Spanish in public schools or bias against African-American English. But only since the 1980s have states, driven by a Spanish-fearing, English-only movement that prefigured Mr. Trump, started enshrining English in their constitutions.

Nothing could be more alien to our multilingual history and reality — not to mention our cognitive and communicative freedom — than the imposition of English or any single standard language.

An estimated 300 Native languages were spoken north of the Rio Grande before European colonization. Many are miraculously still being used, and even more are being revived today, including Lenape. Nor were the early colonies entirely English-speaking. The island of Manhattan set the country’s multilingual template. In 1643, the French Jesuit priest Isaac Jogues wrote that there were a reported 18 languages spoken among the roughly 400 to 500 people residing in the Dutch-run port. Linguistic diversity went hand in hand with religious tolerance and commercial opportunity.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, speakers of primarily oral languages like Irish, Sicilian, Yiddish and Taishanese, to name just a few, were shaping the city and the country in myriad ways. Then in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Johnson-Reed Act in an attempt to freeze the ethnic balance of the country, fueled by political fears and racist pseudoscience.

The law drastically reduced the total number of immigrants allowed in each year, effectively cut off all immigration from outside Northern and Western Europe and formally established the Border Patrol. Immigration rates collapsed almost overnight. If re-elected, Mr. Trump has promised to carry out the largest deportations in American history and block more people from certain countries from entering the country, perhaps even on the basis of language, among other measures. If he has his way, 2024 could well become the new 1924.

Today, close to 70 million Americans speak languages other than English at home. So do around half of all New Yorkers, but nowhere is the depth and breadth of America’s linguistic diversity more apparent than in Queens.

Queens is home to over two million people, with many hailing from distant corners of the globe, validating the fundamental American ideal that people from deeply different backgrounds can coexist. The people who make up “the world’s borough” speak languages like Mixtec, Kichwa, Tibetan and Fulani as well as a trove of endangered languages invisible to the census but mapped by my organization, the Endangered Language Alliance. This depth of linguistic diversity shows how differences may sustain a society, just as biodiversity fosters resilient ecosystems.

Mr. Trump, who was born in Queens to a mother whose first language was Scottish Gaelic, understands all too well how to rally people against the Queensification of America. Attacks on languages are all too often attacks on their speakers, but monolinguals like him may be especially fearful of losing their linguistic privilege. While he may have businesses all over the world, he has never left his linguistic comfort zone.

There are legitimate worries about finite resources and the challenges of integration, but in today’s overheated rhetoric and policy missteps around immigration, the fullness of what over 170,000 asylum seekers are bringing to New York — and what immigrants bring to this country more generally — is being overlooked.

Multilingualism is deeply woven into the nation’s history. And yet, our nation hasn’t built a coherent multilingual project in the way that some other countries that support more than one official language have. We now have an opportunity to document and develop our multilingualism and the richness it extends, as opposed to receiving it passively, or even negatively.

This is all the more imperative today as Indigenous languages of the Americas, vernaculars from areas in Africa affected by the slave trade, and tongues from other colonized places are pushed to the brink. We have a moral responsibility, as exhilarating as it is challenging, to not just hear these languages, but to make space for them.

Ross Perlin, a linguist, writer and translator, is the co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance. He is the author of “Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.



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