Multicultural in the USA – A Growing Pool

The latest multilingualism data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau on a large scale is now five years old. It can be found in its 2013 American Community Survey.

Quick takeaway: the survey found that a record 62 million U.S. residents spoke a language other than English at home. That’s 21 percent of the people living in this country (roughly one in five), up from 14 percent in 1990. The foreign languages most spoken at home are Spanish (38 million speakers in 2013), Chinese (3 million), the Philippines’ Tagalog, Vietnamese, French, Korean, and Arabic (each between 1 and 2 million).

Interestingly, many of the people who speak a foreign language at home are not foreign-born. 44 percent were born in the USA. Considering that the survey did not include children younger than 5, my guess is that, overall, more than half of those who speak a language other than English at home are actually U.S. citizens.

Also worth noting is the fact that multilingualism is a strong trend beyond the ‘usual suspect’ states. While 44 percent of Californian school-age children (5 to 17) speak a foreign language at home, and roughly one in three in Texas, Nevada, and New York, some less expected states are also becoming more and more visible on this map: Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Nebraska and Delaware (one in seven students); Kansas, Utah, Minnesota, and Idaho (one in eight).

So here is the nation-wide paradox : most American monolingual families, I suppose, view multilingualism as a very unusual setting, whether they find it desirable or not. Meanwhile, for a significant proportion of this country’s population speaking several languages is our everyday reality, at the core of our identity.

Considering the size of our minority – one in five persons, remember – I feel this disconnect is an issue for both the multilingual and the monolingual sides. At some point the solidly monolingual majority and the significant, diverse, multilingual minority have to reckon with their respective experiences to make sense of this country. I don’t think it can happen without being curious about actual lives lived and without sharing their very texture. This blog is, among other things, my attempt to contribute to the bridge building.

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