Melissa O'Shaughnessy

How We Speak, Who We Are

Renée Blake , José Álvarez Retamales and Alden McCollum

June 26, 2024

New York’s many languages are an expression of the strength of the city.

New York’s many languages are an expression of the strength of the city.

Like so much of city life, language is dynamic and in constant flux. For centuries, immigrants to New York have felt the intense desire and need to make linguistic choices that they believed would be best for their offspring and their descendants. And while these decisions may have yielded social and economic gains by learning English and letting go of native tongues, they have also spawned linguistic and cultural losses that are, in many cases, irreversible. They have condemned many an ancestral language to silence — to the domain of mourned relics, pushed out in favor of more “practical” languages that hold more socioeconomic “capital.”

When a city loses language diversity, it loses cultural diversity. When it loses that, it loses an ineffable building block of a vibrant metropolis.

Our ability or inability to hold onto the many language people speak is central to bigger questions of urban history and culture — as Ross Perlin writes in his 2024 book, “Language City: ​​The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York.” Perlin movingly tells the stories of six New Yorkers who are speakers of endangered languages from around the globe — and what we and they stand to lose if those languages go extinct.

In spite of all that may be wrong about New York City, there is still something about it that is infectious: the energy, the possibilities, the diversity of people and food and music and experiences. All this is brilliantly expressed in the mix of languages spoken in our population — nearly 40% of which is foreign-born. As the text alongside a beautiful language map built by linguistic scholars explains, “With speakers of approximately 10% of the world’s 6,000-7,000 languages, the New York metropolitan area is the most linguistically diverse urban center in the world, probably in the history of the world.” That’s a feature — not a bug — of the city’s greatness.

Of course, language diversity comes with challenges. Not every last government announcement or street sign or traffic sign can or should be printed in every language spoken here. For there to be a healthy common civic conversation within and between neighborhoods, many if not most of us need to be able to speak to one another directly, with clarity and nuance. And so it’s reasonable that, over the generations, learning English has been seen by many immigrants in good faith as a healthy adaptation to this melting pot – this “gorgeous mosaic.”

But translators can bridge many gaps, and technology, when wielded intentionally, can make this easier than ever. This need not be zero-sum. We can encourage English acquisition while also promoting less popular languages’ survival, but it is important to be cautious about how we do so.

The crucial point: Language is not only about the way people speak. Words make communities. They shape our neighborhoods. They contain and carry history and culture. Perlin’s interviewees worry not only about the future of their languages, but also about generational knowledge at risk of being swept away.

Too often, language shifts highlight the tensions between capitalism and culture. Oftentimes, the hardships parents face due to their limited English and/or marginalized accents lead them to make the hard choices of having their children grow up as primary speakers of English. This choice may inadvertently result in children losing access to how their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents might have spoken. As a result, these children — now adults — and their children may only have limited access to their parents’ languages and thus cultures. That’s a serious problem — one some people might even call a tragedy.

What to do? As Perlin writes, “One thing we can do proactively is build a linguistic infrastructure, a real right to language that ensures information, interpretation and education in every mother tongue. This requires an unprecedented push beginning in courts, hospitals and schools, and it’s ultimately about the interactions of language and power at every level, reaching deep into our mouths and our minds.”

The Ghanian sociologist Kwesi Prah aptly tells us, “The foundation on which culture is built and transacted is language. Language captures the experience of its users, and serves as the key depository of the collective experience of its producers. It is in language that the creativity and innovative traditions of its creators and users are institutionalized, and it is within language that the processes of the production and reproduction of knowledge are effected.”

There’s an important benefit to more broadly respecting, preserving and protecting the way people speak: Careful consideration of how languages are used and manipulated can give us insight into how inequality works more broadly. Accents are pervasive, and yet within the educational system, bilingualism is often touted predominantly for the elite who have mastered speaking the dominant language without a foreign accent. Nurturing a multilingual city makes New York a place where people from across the planet can belong — and stay — for generations.