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From Polish and Italian to Arabic and Creole: The Changing Sound of the American Street

| October 11, 2014

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Mahdi Abedrabbo, 18, speaks Arabic at home with his Palestinian-born parents and English at work in Corrado’s Market here, where customers hailing from all over the world buy everything from fresh Italian mozzarella to Turkish tahini.

In nearby South Paterson, a mix of people from the Middle East and North Africa, including Muslims and Coptic Christians, mingle on Main Street, where many of the signs are in Arabic.

“We learn from each other. That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” said Abedrabbo, who was born in the U.S. but whose parents immigrated 34 years ago.

The number of people living in the U.S. who speak a language other than English at home has grown to 21 percent, or 62 million, compared with 18 percent, or 47 million, in 2000, according to census data and the American Community Survey.

The mix of languages being spoken also is changing, according to a Stateline analysis of the data: Since 2000, for example, Italian and Polish have dropped off the list of the top 10 non-English languages in common use in the U.S., while the use of Arabic and French Creole (the vast majority of U.S. speakers are from Haiti) each has surged more than 70 percent.

(The census term “French Creole” includes a handful of local languages spoken in parts of the Caribbean outside of Haiti. It does not include Cajun or Patois, varieties of French spoken in Louisiana.)

stateline logo analysisThe changes are creating challenges for cities and states. Michigan now offers voting, financial and health information in Arabic. Connecticut is trying to adjust to the growing number of Arabic speakers who call its domestic violence hotline. And Florida’s Miami-Dade County now distributes its pocket transportation guide in Creole as well as in English and Spanish.

In some states, the growth in a population speaking any one foreign language triggers new requirements. Texas mandates that bilingual education programs begin once a school district has 20 students who speak a foreign language, and hospitals in California must provide 24-hour translation services for any language spoken by at least 5 percent of the people who live in its coverage area.

Spanish is still the non-English language spoken by the most Americans: About 38.4 million people report speaking Spanish at home. Chinese is second at 3 million.

Special Challenges

Arabic speakers are concentrated in parts of New Jersey and Michigan. More than a million people now speak it at home across the U.S., a 71 percent increase compared to 2000. It is now the country’s seventh most spoken language, up from 11th in 2000, according to the Stateline analysis.

Click on the graph for larger view.

Click on the graph for larger view.

Creole speakers are centered in South Florida and in Massachusetts, and have a large presence in the New York City area. The number of people who speak that language has increased 73 percent since 2000, when it was the 14th most common language spoken at home. It now ranks 10th.

It can be difficult for native speakers of both languages to learn to speak and write in English—and that presents special challenges for educators and government officials. Arabic is written from right to left, and skips vowels in the written form, and the Creole spoken in Haiti—a mix of French and African languages—only recently was standardized as a written language.

A study last year in Washington state chronicled the lives of two of the three Arabic-speaking students in a Pullman middle school, and noted they had trouble in school and often needed their parents’ help at home to bridge the gap between English and Arabic. Teachers were embarrassed that they didn’t know much about students’ backgrounds or language.

Schools with many Arabic speakers have found they cannot help all of them in the same way, said Lane Green, the author of a book on the politics of language.

“Arabic speakers have so many dialects that I think this would be an obvious problem in accommodating them in schools,” Green said. “The same would apply to Chinese. If you’re a native Cantonese speaker, Mandarin bilingual help would be very close to totally useless, akin to Italian support for a Spanish speaker.”

The written form of Creole, which was standardized in 1980, was widely used in U.S. schools before it was used in Haiti; Haiti is just now beginning to plan widespread Creole-language education in partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As a result, Haitian immigrants may arrive in the U.S. not knowing how to read or write in their own language, said MIT professor Michel DeGraff.

“Learners who are literate and secure in their native language are better learners,” DeGraff said. “Because most Haitian students learn to read and write, not in their native Creole, but in French, a language that they are often not fluent in, they typically end up as poor readers and poor writers, in both languages.”

‘Cemetery of Languages’

Even as more Americans speak foreign languages at home, there is little risk that any one of them will crowd out English. History has shown that eventually, the American “melting pot” consumes them all, leading some linguists to call the U.S. a “cemetery of languages.” Most of the children and grandchildren of immigrants who spoke Yiddish, German or Italian have long since abandoned those languages in daily discourse.

Lisandro Pérez, chairman of Latin American and Latina/o Studies at John Jay College in New York, said the census numbers are misleading, based on his study of immigrant families in Florida and San Diego.

“Children of immigrants may report that the native language is the one spoken at home, but when we asked them which one they prefer, it’s English,” Pérez said. “Our data showed that English was the preferential language.”

In fact, immigrants who want to preserve the use of their languages often have to take extraordinary measures to do so. The South Korean government, for example, has helped fund Korean language and culture programs for public schools in Bergen County, New Jersey, one of the largest centers of Korean language here.

Abedrabbo, the Arabic-speaking New Jersey teen, said he does find himself speaking English most of the time with his parents now.

“It was harder for them,” he said. “It’s like anybody else, any immigrant group—you come here, land of opportunity, and you struggle at first and then you learn.”

–Tim Henderson, Stateline

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7 Responses for “From Polish and Italian to Arabic and Creole: The Changing Sound of the American Street”

  1. your Fan says:

    one Nation, one Flag and one language

  2. Retired FF says:


  3. boomer says:

    why is it that more people are not commenting on this subject? cowards, i would never serve in combat with such people that think our country should be open to all those who dispise it…how many men and women have given their life to keep this country free and sacred and those days are long gone and will never return….these people will never become american and will do anything to make us fail…watch…it’s happening right before your eyes if you can possibly remove them from that stupid phone that is glued to your hand….it’s a sad country we live in today…..good luck to the weak…..

  4. Nikia says:

    I am surrounded by many people from foreign lands and the overwhelming consensus is how shocking it is to them that Americans really don’t express any desire to learn about anything more than what they know. This is why we look so uneducated to the outside world. I myself have always had a great sadness for some of my families’ culture lost in the 1800s and 1900s to “assimilation”. I want my children to understand through experience that the rest of the world doesn’t live how we live so they can truely appreciate it and not take it for granted. You often see immigrants flying two flags and I think it is more like look where we came from and where we are now. There is nothing wrong with nourishing ones roots.

  5. Sherry Epley says:

    As a gal who travels extensively to other countries, I do believe that our nation is stronger because we all communicate using one language. Language is the key to really understanding, peacefully living with and having compassion for one another.

    However, as ” Nikia says” commented, we should all continue to grow to accept that most people are quite capable of learning and speaking several languages. Shouldn’t those who are so very “close minded” be speaking an original language like the Seminoles did? Or maybe Italian like Columbus? But then again some of our earliest settlers were from Spain. . . is it Spanish we should be speaking then?

    Yes, we do have one “official” language. . . interesting that it is called English, since this is not England. . . but, that should not preclude embracing and celebrating our unique citizenry and their cultures and traditions. Our wonderful country was born from the coming together of immigrants. WE ARE ALL IMMIGRANTS! All seeking better lives in the USA. . . defined as the “United” States of America. Wouldn’t it be splendid. . . wouldn’t it be glorious. . . it that still held true!

  6. Segdumsfollufsievilrelgalf says:

    One language…english in America.

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