The languages of the United States – and why they matter

by OFER TIROSH 13/06/2018

The US is a country of rich diversity and many contradictions. For example, it has no official language, and yet there is a pervasive stereotype that Americans can only speak English. Here we explore the modern-day picture of multilingualism in the US and what it means for the country as a whole. 

Languages of the United States

English is the most widely spoken language in the US, with the American Community Survey reporting some 237.8 million speakers in 2016. However, America’s history – as well as present-day immigration – means that a wealth of other languages are spoken across the country. 

Spanish is the second most spoken language, with 40.5 million speakers. After that comes Chinese (including Mandarin and Cantonese), with 3.4 million speakers, then Tagalog (1.7 million), Vietnamese (1.5 million), Arabic (1.2 million), French (1.2 million) and Korean (1.1 million). 

A further 24 languages are spoken by a million people or fewer in the US, ranging from Russian (0.91 million speakers) to Navajo (0.16 million). 

The monolingual lie

Teacher Kayla Roste recently shared a heartfelt post that explored the ‘monolingual lie’ – the idea that English is the be all and end all for families looking to succeed in the US. The concept is one that the ‘English-only movement’ is seeking to formalise by making English the US’s sole official language. 

For many contemporary thinkers like Roste, the xenophobic implications of the English-only movement are out of step with an inclusive society. However, Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency has done much to harm the image of an inclusive, multilingual United States. So much so, in fact, that monolingualism in the US has become more of a divisive issue, coming to be seen as yet another element of white privilege – at least to those who are opposed to Trump’s approach to multiculturalism. 

The English-only argument

The move to push Americans to speak only English dates back as far as the 1750s, when British settlers sought to stamp out the speaking of German in their colonies. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 gave the idea further impetus, when the influx of French-speaking settlements into the United States led to concerns in Washington. 

Since then, successive waves of immigration have provided the US with a rich tapestry of languages, though at the expense of many of the country’s native languages. Indeed, there is much to feel ashamed of in the linguistic evolution of the US, from languages being brought in through the slave trade to the mass eradication of native peoples. 

The result is a culture in which language can still be an emotive issue. During Donald Trump’s election campaign, language teacher Kayla Roste noted several instances of pupils shouting “Build That Wall!” and “Go back to where you came from!” at their fellow pupils at her multilingual, multicultural school. 

Why languages matter

In the US, as in other countries around the world, languages matter – and not just to those providing professional translation services! Languages are an inherent part of who we are the culture we feel affiliated to. By sharing our languages, we can share our cultures and develop a deeper understanding of each other. We can communicate our needs and support others with their own needs. 

This doesn’t mean all switching to one language, be it English, Spanish or any other language – it means respectfully embracing all of the languages that make up the modern-day United States and celebrating all that they bring to the country. 

Final thoughts

With Donald Trump in the White House, will the English-only movement continue to gain momentum? Or will multilingual diversity continue to prevail in the US? Leave a comment to share your views. 

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