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The United States is an English speaking country, and so to say it is home to the epicentre of modern foreign languages may seem strange. It is true that in many parts of the US, it is uncommon to find any language other than English, despite the country’s rich heritage of French and Spanish occupation in the south, and French and German settlements in the north, as well as British until Independence Day. It must also not be forgotten that there are of course Native American dialects throughout the heartlands and in Alaska. Hawaii also has a native tongue, still commonly using “aloha” as a greeting. But it is not one of these locations which makes America a gem of linguistic diversity. It is New York City. As the whole area is just renamed after bits of Britain (New Jersey and New Hampshire are nearby, not to mention the whole area north of New York is simply called New England), this may be surprising, but the sheer abundance of languages in NYC’s five boroughs and the surrounding megalopolis make this icon of America a world village all on its own.
The most obvious second language is Spanish. I cannot imagine sitting on a train or bus in Birmingham or London where only about half the adverts adorning the walls are in English. The MTA system in New York is coated with Spanish adverts, and it is clear why. The demographic of Latinos in New York, and of course much of the US, means that it is routine that most things will be bilingual. No Smoking/No Fumar is a common sign, Spanish language newspapers were sold at every stand, and it can be heard in every locale of the vast metropolis. It is an aspect of life in an American city that can’t be missed. Spanish is one of only two languages with more official speakers than English, as there are a million more speaking Spanish than English worldwide. Chinese is of course the number one, which brings us swiftly to Canal St.
If you take the 6 Train to Canal St, the world into which you emerge is like no other part of Manhattan. Soho boasts signs of a strictly tri-lingual nature, with English and Spanish as before, but also Cantonese or Mandarin. Cheaply exported goods made in China are all on display on the street side, with Chinese restaurants, herbal therapy centres and apothecaries all dispersed along the east-to-west street and the surrounding areas. If it were not for the sheer quantity of tourists, the district would almost look as if you had stumbled onto an unusually wide Hong Kong side road, with the mix match of English and Mandarin everywhere. Even the Chinatown firehouse is somewhat bilingual, Engine 9 and Ladder 6 adorned with the nickname “Dragon Fighters”, and the rig numbers and FDNY repeated on the paintwork in golden Chinese characters, small dragon symbols on the fronts of the trucks.
The Fire Department of New York is itself the epitome of the next language of New York; Italian. Little Italy is just next to Soho, and the FDNY is famously Italian and Irish. A recent scandal emerged revealing that only about 3% of the men of the FDNY were black, and the stereotypes of Italian moustachioed laddermen and Irish truckers is still very much alive. American Italians have a distinct accent, made famous in so many gangster films, and it can be heard all around the city. The Italian language is mostly now practiced privately or by the older Italian residents, but is found all around Little Italy’s delis, pizzerias and cafes. Entering the area, you are confronted by proudly hanging Italian colours and a noticeable language switch in every shop window and on bumper stickers.
Of course, there are many, many more examples. Just off 5th Avenue, near Macy’s, is Korea Town. Harlem in north Manhattan is home to mostly black residents, and has Caribbean and African influences scattered throughout. The area of Jamaica, in Queens, is similarly Caribbean. New York State borders Canada, and there is no shortage of licence plates from Quebec on the cars in Manhattan, touring from Canada’s principal French speaking province. As you approach 1st Ave and 42nd St, you find the United Nations HQ, and its many envoy buildings in the nearby streets, so amplifying the presence of multilingualism.
And finally, there are the tours to Ellis Island. Ellis Island was the immigration portal to the US, and explains in part why there is such a rich diversity of language. If you crossed the Atlantic to reach America between the late 1800s and the early 1950s, you had to pass through Ellis Island and New York. Needless to say, many Italians, Russians, Arabs, Jews, Irish and all sorts of other nationalities simply stayed there in Manhattan. It was these immigrants who built New York. It’s the city with a multinational history, and a multilingual future.
By Samuel Lowe
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham