How vital is our Minnesotan multilingualism?

What roles do the languages in your community play?
What roles do the languages in your community play?

Multilingualism provides vitality to cities, not just a problem to be solved. As a result, cities must preserve and promote this vitality through policies and services.

Recently, Michael Erard, author of Babel No More, made this claim in an article about multilingualism in cities. He followed the studies by a European consortium called Languages in Urban Communities: Integration and Diversity for Europe (or LUCIDE) in the book, The Multilingual City.

The researchers, Erard explained, studied some of the unofficial ways that languages are used in a cosmopolitan area, such as graffiti, posters, and trash—the “detritus” of less visible communities.

The studies focused on Europe, with some further research in Canada and Australia. They also tended to focus on “European” languages—more highly valued than perceived “foreign” languages like Romani and Arabic.

How would Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota, USA, measure up to the multilingualism of these studies?

Our multilingualism here comes from immigration. The situation does not resemble the multilingualism of Bilbao or Dublin, where the same languages have subsisted side-by-side for centuries.

What are the “species” in my ecolinguistic sphere?

I look forward to reading the LUCIDE study, but I’m ready to start looking around my city for the “detritus.” What are the languages around? Where are they used? By whom?

What are the “networks” in my ecolinguistic sphere?

I’m also curious about who is multilingual in my town, and their attitudes and motivation. I’ve noticed that one language leads to the next. Many of the Somalis around were born in Kenya, so they also speak Swahili. My Oromo teacher speaks Norwegian, thanks to his time living there, in addition to Amharic. Some Arabs and Somalis I’ve met picked up Spanish since coming to Minnesota, simply by talking to people. How often do people of different native languages converse in languages other than English?

I have also been curious about the situation in Asian and African cities. What multilingualism do you see in Manila? New Delhi? Nairobi? Does anyone know of studies in those places?

Is your city multilingual? How are the various languages manifested? How do they interact?

Photo credit: Stéfan via / CC BY-NC-SA

One thought on “How vital is our Minnesotan multilingualism?

  1. Rachel

    To answer about the Asian cities – my uncle often writes about multilingual mishaps and observations in Daejeon, where he lives: – mostly the English stuff, but Chinese (not sure what sort) has been used in Korea for centuries and there are significant inroads by Japanese, as well.

    As for my city – yes, it’s multilingual. Just taking the area where I grew up (and no go to uni), probably the majority home language when I was a kid was Italian, and this showed when you went into the shops – the serving lady would sort of look you up and down and make a judgement as to whether to address you in English or Italian. These days, Korean seems to be at least a significant minority – you just need to drive down the main street in the suburb and see that every second shop has a sign in Korean.

    Meanwhile, Italian, which is rarely spoken as a first language by the younger generation these days, has entered common currency – I noticed a baby supplies shop in a non-Italian area of the city the other day called “Bambini”.

    I’ve grown up knowing that there are certain parts of the city where I’m more likely to hear Greek, Italian, or Vietnamese than English… I don’t think the languages really interact, though. And they’re just the languages which have/had “hotspot” areas – there are dozens of other languages spoken across the city. I’ve known some Europeans (particularly eastern Europeans) who prefer to speak to each other in German or French than in English, but English is pretty well-known there.

    I don’t know much about the Chinese community here (except that it’s HUGE), but a classmate of mine is having trouble at the moment because he’s Chinese-Malay and therefore speaks Hokkien, but his pastor has put him in charge of mentoring a group of Mandarin-speakers in the church… He’s just constantly going, “Argh! I understand Mandarin but I don’t speak it, I’m Singaporean, what do I do!” So there’s definitely the expectation among the Chinese community that everyone will speak to each other in Mandarin, not in Cantonese or Hokkien or anything else.

    It’s just occurred to me – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen signage around in Greek (except on Orthodox churches), but I can think of a handful of buildings with Italian signage and dozens with Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese. The area I live now gets German-ish graffiti and joke-signage, but it can be hard to tell what’s real and what’s for the tourists.

    On the other hand, Italian and Greek are so intrenched in “Australian” now that there’s a lot on telly that probably passes me by… We’re just emerging from a period where a lot of Greek swear words were on television because they could be slipped under the producers’ radars… you still hear a lot of “malaka” and “malakias” on telly but not as much of anything else… beginning to hear more Vietnamese, though.

    Liked by 1 person

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