To be American is to be multilingual

Languages will come to flourish in the US, not to die.

Historically, languages come to the US to die.  German once was spoken by half the US population, and is now nearly gone except among some Amish groups.  Huge populations of Jews, Swedes, and Dutch used to speak their language across the US, but not any more.  We could be the most multi-lingual population in world, except we lost this knowledge.  An assumption has trickled down that Americans are monolingual.  If we change this assumption, however, languages will thrive in the US.

When it comes to the Somali language in Minnesota, both Somalis and non-Somalis seem to agree on one idea: the Somali language is for Somalis.  This attitude will result in language death and we will see Somali go the way of Yiddish in the US.  Disappearance of this language is not inevitable, though, because once both sides recognize a new paradigm in which everyone will benefit if everyone knows Somali, then Somali will continue to thrive for generations; rather than die, this new language will flourish and enrich US culture.

I have been in dialogue with Somalis interested in Somali language education, but they are mostly concerned with ensuring their children do not forget the language.  This fear comes for good reason.  If we look at the Russian immigrants in this area, a good number have children who cannot speak Russian, which indicates that the grandchildren will have forgotten Russian altogether.  Russians work hard to keep their language alive, but it has taken a lot of effort and the effort is still losing ground.  Somalis should be aware, too, that simply offering their language, even if they manage high quality education in the schools, does not ensure victory in this losing battle.

Non-Somalis identify the Somali language with Somalis in a simple-minded way, not recognizing the advantage the non-Somalis are missing out on.  “This is the US–speak English,” people assume.  As immigrants come to our country, they need to assimilate and their assimilation is measured by their level of English, according to this view.  As a result of this assumption, those born in the US miss the advantage of learning another language.  (I’ve discussed these advantages in “Language, fear, and childishness,” “Language: Failure is Gain,” “Language deficiency,” “Are English-only speakers squeezed out?” among others.)

As the children of Somali immigrants grow up in the US, they see themselves as Americans, and adopt the attitude I just described.  The Somali language belongs to their parents–foreigners–but not them.  The US is their country, and they’ve been surrounded by the English language every day of their lives.  At best they may teach their children some phrases or songs out of nostalgia for their own childhood, but their children will be as American and monolingual as any Swedish-, German-, or Czech-American who can trace their family back three to four generations here in Minnesota.

“To be American is to be multilingual.”  This counter-intuitive, perhaps never-heard-before phrase represents a paradigm shift that will end language death.  Once native-born Americans see foreign-language study as a duty, a trait of a patriotic American to connect with neighbors and fellow-citizens from all over the world, then the next generation of Somali children will see that their Somali language is a benefit towards their being American, not a hindrance against it.  They would grow up as good Americans from the cradle.

The first step towards shifting this paradigm requires language-study for all–and not just basic knowledge; every American must learn to speak a language fluently.  In Minnesota, Spanish and Somali are obvious candidates, as fluency could be achieved in 3-4 years if the languages were taught in the schools with thorough community engagement.  Once non-Somalis are regularly learning the Somali language, it would follow logically that Somali kids would continue to learn Somali at home in order to succeed in school.

I am pursuing enriching language education so that new and native-born Americans can reap the benefits of multilingualism.  As multilingualism is the norm, each wave of immigrants would enrich our culture and language offerings rather than dooming their native language.  The US would cultivate the linguistic seed that these newcomers bring, helping the next generation of Americans, whatever their origin.

What do we need to do to implement this new paradigm, American as multilingual?


16 thoughts on “To be American is to be multilingual

    1. I think there are two reasons they come. (The weather is not one 🙂 ) First, Minnesotans tend to be kind people. I don’t know if it’s out of hospitality or simply wanting to do the right thing. My gut says it’s the latter, but I can’t prove it. Second, Minnesotans invited a lot of Hmong refugees in the 80s and Russians (especially Jews) in the 90s. Because of their experience in helping refugees here, they know how to do it, so it goes easily. Actually, I heard that the Jewish organizations that brought over a lot of the Russians had a hand in bringing over the Somalis.


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  7. As a child, I could have been taught Russian and Yiddish, both of which older relatives spoke, but unfortunately that didn’t happen and I picked up only a few words and phrases of each language. The various languages I have studied came later, when I was a teenager or adult, and no longer capable of the kind of fluency that only comes to child learners of a language.

    Steve Schwartzman


    1. I’ve heard people make this complaint before. I wish I could have grown up with a bunch of languages, too, especially Russian and Yiddish. At the same time, I’ll defend not teaching kids languages–it’s really hard! Kids are brutally utilitarian and will not speak a language if they don’t have to. I taught my kids Russian when they were little and it was a battle with many tears. I had to tone it down. The nice thing is, even in middle school they see that it had value.

      I wish our society valued multiple languages rather than letting them die while everyone speaks English.


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