Language love in Miami

Miami Beach, Florida Trilingual sign, English,...
Miami Beach, Florida Trilingual sign, English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I spent last weekend in Miami for an academic conference. I was amazed at the variety of languages I ran into in four days: SPANISH, Haitian Creole, Arabic, and Portuguese.

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?

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17 thoughts on “Language love in Miami

  1. You definitely experienced Miami! It’s an amazing place linguistically, for sure. I’ve lived there now for a while and it still kills me how often people assume I speak Spanish. I do in fact, but anyone looking at me from anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere would never expect I’m fluent. In fact, everywhere else I travel, when I speak Spanish, I get the same surprised look.

    That’s why I love Miami.

    I can walk into the grocery store (100 yards from my apartment) and hear Russian, Portuguese, Italian, English, Spanish, Hebrew, Haitian Creole and other languages I don’t recognize, all in the same 15 minute shopping trip.

    Everybody in Miami speaks more than one language which makes it a great place to live.


    1. That’s awesome! I love this multilingual city.

      I was also amazed at how Cuban the Spanish is. In Colorado and Minnesota the Latinos are overwhelmingly Mexican. The contrast is very significant.

      Are Spanish classes really popular in Miami, or do people just pick it up?


      1. I think there’s a lot of people that speak it from their parents, being native speakers or just learning it and migrating to Miami.

        But there are definitely opportunities for classes everywhere too. I’m not sure what public schools do with Spanish though.

        And there’s obviously tons of opportunities to practice.

        As for the Cuban accent, without a doubt that’s the predominant accent, but you also hear lots of Argentines and Central Americans, but as you observed not too many Mexicans.


  2. That’s amazing! I would love to live in a place like that. The culture there must be so rich and diverse! And how wonderful to have Spanish speakers elevated to a higher level where their language is understood and spoken by a vast majority.


    1. It was really a cool, diverse place. I was happy that Jared reinforced what I noticed. (He’s *the* expert on teaching Spanish dialects, BTW.)

      At the same time, there’s plenty of racism. But like I said, at least they can’t ignore each other. When there’s no diversity, the different one just gets swept under the rug.


  3. Mehrin

    سلام دوست عزیر
    What’s your idea about having an Internet forum/blog/facebook group for language lovers? There are many for learners, but I mean one for lovers.


      1. Mehrin

        I’m happy that you like the idea. Unfortunately I’m not much into forums and stuff like that. Anyway I think before getting started we must think well so as to lay the foundation well and can have a successful association. What I’m thinking of is a blog or website where people can share their ideas of languages and cultures (like your own posts) and also ask their questions.
        By the way, Why don’t we ask other people’s opinions?


      2. Mehrin

        Thank you, Jared. I found the website really useful. It is to some degree similar to my idea, but not exactly the same.


      3. Were you able to create an account and get into the forum discussions? They run forums in several languages and the topics cover all kinds of stuff.

        If you find something close to your idea that already exists, I’d be interested in hearing about it too.



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