Truly multi-lingual city
First, Spanish was everywhere. Miami is the only truly bilingual city in the US I’ve ever seen. Really, it seemed everyone spoke Spanish and people just seemed to take it for granted. Our Palestinian friends spoke Spanish in the cafes. When I got on the Metrorail, an older gentleman asked me in Spanish if the current train went to his stop. I have never had anyone assume I know Spanish, so this was surprising. A young African-American man answered him, albeit in English. Needless to say, he understood the older gentleman’s question. The assumption that everyone knew some Spanish pervaded the city.
Public places also reflected this assumption. I walked down Miracle Mile, a high-end shopping district (with an uncanny amount of wedding shops). I heard more Spanish among shoppers and employees than I heard English. When I poked my head into a big chain book store, about one-fourth of the books were in Spanish. I likewise spent some time in the public library, and the proportion was about the same. I could speak Spanish anywhere I went.
Second, I saw a fair amount of Haitian Creole, though I only heard it once or twice. Signs at the library, grocery store, and public transportation had signs in Creole along with Spanish. I spoke standard French the times I did hear it, and it seemed to work fine. I was happy to find that Google Translator has Creole, which allowed me some fun at the Metro stop, so as I waited for my train to depart, I used Translator to translate the Creole posters.
Third, I spoke a surprising amount of Arabic. The conference took place in a Palestinian church, so many of the folks around–men driving us, women cooking for us–were Arab immigrants. They really appreciated having a “white” guy speaking Arabic with them. They even asked me where I was born, probably trying to figure out if maybe I had an obvious reason for speaking Arabic.
Fourth, I ran into a small amount of Portuguese. Many Palestinians fled to South America after the creation of the state of Israel, so the church included several members who were born in Brazil. I also heard it on the street.
View of a multilingual US?
Could Miami represent the future of the US? Enough immigrants and even second-generation citizens who speak multiple languages seem to have tipped the balance. I don’t think anyone in Miami is purely monolingual, if the young folks on public transportation can understand Spanish, if the older people can assume they’ll get an answer when they ask a white guy like me a question in Spanish.
Even though life in Miami is far from perfect, I appreciate how Miami has an advantage over Minnesota. I can see that people speaking each other’s language does not necessarily mean that people will live in harmony. Cubans frustrate the Arabs, and the Haitians annoy the Cubans, etc. No one is invisible, however. Unlike in Minnesota, where no Mexican would ever approach me with a Spanish question, many Latinos simply have no voice. The lack of knowledge in the average Minnesotan relegates the non-English speaker to irrelevance. In this way, the Miami Latino has advantages over the one from Minneapolis. Even if one may not like what the Miamian says, at least you have to deal with it.
What would a multi-lingual US look like? Would it look like Canada? Ireland? India? South Africa?