Multilingualism is on the rise in the United States, driven by immigration, globalization, and an increased recognition of the value of speaking multiple languages. According to the US Census Bureau, 20 percent of all Americans can speak two or more languages.
However, there are other forces at work when it comes to maintaining multilingualism. In the United States, native languages have traditionally been lost in favor of English within several generations, says Amelia Tseng, coordinator of AU’s new Linguistics Program and assistant professor of World Languages and Cultures. “We are a multilingual country and have the potential to be a language powerhouse, but we have to make sure we don’t squander this opportunity as we have in the past," she explains. “In my opinion, celebrating diversity while letting native languages fade through the usual assimilation pressure is problematic and prevents the United States from becoming sustainably multilingual.”
The United States has always been a multilingual country.
In this conversation, Tseng discusses how languages are gained and lost in the United States, and what must be done to retain all the richness and advantages of living in a multilingual nation.
Q. What is the state of multilingualism in the United States?
The US has always been a multilingual country. It was multilingual pre-European colonization and has remained that way since, fueled in large part by the continuous waves of immigration that have defined the nation.
Some of this “You’re in America, speak English” attitude still lingers today.
The upsurge since 1980 reflects the largest and most diverse migration since the massive European wave at the turn of the 20th century. Those immigrants typically lost their heritage languages as they assimilated—not necessarily voluntarily, as there was tremendous pressure towards a one-nation, one-language ideology—summed up by President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1907 quote, “We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.”
Some of this “You’re in America, speak English” attitude still lingers today, as if it were not possible to speak both English and another language, or to be “American” while preserving one’s cultural roots.
Q. Are families retaining their heritage languages—native languages spoken at home by parents and grandparents?
While many families want to maintain their home languages, it’s difficult.
Census data tells us what languages other than English are spoken at home, but it does not tell us if heritage languages are being maintained by their children. As children go to school, play with their friends, and grow up to become adults, they typically don't use their heritage language for most of their communication. To take the example of Spanish as a heritage language for US Latinxs, the well-documented pattern of language loss across generations appears to hold fast or even be growing. And other languages, such as Chinese, appear to disappear faster.
This pattern appears to hold despite the country’s overall more open attitude towards multiculturalism since the 1990s. While many families want to maintain their home languages, it’s difficult—they need support.
Q. What do you see for the future of multilingualism in the US?
Throughout history, we see a strong pattern of immigrants’ children and grandchildren shifting to English within three generations. There are hopeful signs of change: transnational families and the global economy also create more motivation for bilingualism, and the flourishing of dual-language immersion schools and heritage language schools, as well as initiatives such as the Seal of Biliteracy, provide avenues for support. However, it’s hard to predict what the future will be. Without sustained support, it’s likely that the pattern of language shift will continue, and we’ll continue to lose a cultural and practical resource as a nation without even being aware of its importance except for those that it affects personally.
Q. Why are languages so important?
Language rights are recognized as human rights by the United Nations.
Language maintenance is important for cultural and human rights purposes, as well as for national preparedness and development. Language rights are recognized as human rights by the United Nations. Language is also key to participation in the global economy. Even in the day of Google Translate and Chat GPT, effective communication goes far beyond word-to-word translation, and there is much that technology cannot do. Language is also key to national preparedness, as shown by the Department of State and Armed Services’ perpetual need for speakers of languages other than English. It is for these reasons that the Obama and Biden administrations saw multilingualism as a national priority.
Q. So how do we get there?
Support for bilingualism needs to come on all fronts.
Support for bilingualism needs to come on all fronts: support for both heritage languages and traditional foreign-language learners. Unfortunately, both are affected by broader issues in US education such as funding and political will. The effective dual-language immersion model has gained in popularity over the past decades, but we still need to be vigilant that it is not reproducing social inequity by celebrating enrichment bilingualism for majority-group children while discriminating against minority students
More broadly, there is still a tension between multilingual acceptance and a certain suspicion of diversity. Gatekeeping and cultural anxiety lead to the “English-only movement,” which has reared its head throughout American history, most recently in the 1990s, and we are still living with its aftereffects. Ultimately, rather than perceiving languages other than English as “foreign,” we’ll benefit from recognizing that they are all American now—as American as the people who speak them—and we should support them to our mutual benefit.