Most people modify their ways of speaking, writing, texting, and e-mailing, and so on, according to the people with whom they are communicating. This fascinating book asks why we 'accommodate' to others in this way, and explores the various social consequences arising from it.
EDITOR: Kim Potowski TITLE: Language Diversity in the USA PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2010
Diego Pascual y Cabo, Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies at the University of Florida, Gainesville
Not without controversy, the cultural multiplicity of the United States of America has been defined as a melting pot, as a mosaic, or even as a kaleidoscope. The racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of contemporary America is validated by a near-constant influx of immigrants from various parts of the world. Each population contributes its own culture and traditions to the emerging societal make-up resulting in an intricate and complex net of cultural relations that is not exempt of conflict at different levels. Linguistically, this assembly of people speaking different languages has afforded us a tremendous opportunity to study language contact phenomena. Inevitably these multilingual environments, where two or more languages coexist, only last for a brief period of time and they usually result in language shift towards English. It is in this context that the intellectual and social merits of ''Language Diversity in the USA'' are most evident.
Potowski's edited volume provides sixteen chapters under the umbrella of languages in contact. Thematically, it is divided into four sections. The first section deals with the creation of fallacious beliefs about language in the US (chapter 1). Section two broadly describes language contact phenomena (chapter 2). Each chapter in the third section (chapters 3-15) describes one commonly spoken non-English language. Section four (chapter 16) concludes with discussion of language policy.
I will now summarize each chapter:
A lack of accurate information has contributed to a series of myths about language diversity in the US. In chapter 1, Potowski refers to some of the negative implications of such false beliefs while arguing for multiple advantages of multilingualism, at the individual and societal level.
In chapter 2, Suzanne Romaine reexamines the broad topic of language in contact and presents the reader with a brief diachronic overview of the country’s linguistic panorama. In this chapter, Romaine effectively addresses the most important and essential details needed to understand current research and the outcomes of multilingualism.
Chapter 3 offers a succinct overview of the past, present and future condition of the major Native American Languages. In her work, Teresa McCarty does not hide the current precarious condition of these languages, rather is hopeful in that linguistic revitalization is a possibility. As representatives of this possibility, she provides the reader with four descriptive portraits of revitalization projects at different stages of endangerment.
In chapter 4, Kim Potowski and Maria Carreira discuss the vivacity of Spanish. Undeniably, it has become the most widely spoken non-English language in the country and its numbers are predicted to grow exponentially in the next few years. In addition, this has translated into ample opportunities to learn the language, especially at the secondary and postsecondary level. In this respect, the authors claim that supplementary efforts need be redirected into programs that contribute not only to the teaching of Spanish as a foreign language but that stop heritage speakers of Spanish shifting towards English monolingualism.
More optimistic is Yun Xiao's view on the prospects of the Chinese language (chapter 5). While in the past Chinese heritage speakers had shifted to English, China's recent economic explosion has resulted in copious amounts of interest to know more about the country, its people, and most importantly -- for our purposes -- its language. As a result, major efforts and initiatives are being directed countrywide to promote an environment where this is possible.
Chapter 6 centers on Elvira Fonacier's analysis of the socio-linguistic status of Tagalog. Unlike many other Asian languages in this volume, the number of Tagalog speakers has increased in the previous few decades. Fonacier explains this by the continuous recycling of native speakers from the Philippines. The chapter ultimately proposes the establishment of mechanisms to preserve the use of the language, despite its having been previously publicly marginalized, in an attempt to stave off language shift towards mainstream English.
In chapter 7, Albert Valdman considers the steep decrease in the number of French speakers. Its presence has never been comparable to that of other languages such as Spanish or Chinese, nonetheless one can still find reduced francophone speakers in places such as Louisiana. The future of this language in the country is not very promising due to, among other things, a very low incoming number of French native speakers.
Chapter 8 deals with Vietnamese. Vy Thuc Dao and Carl Bankston III present a community that showed signs of maintenance due to high concentrations of Vietnamese speakers early on. However, more recently, there have been signs of attrition among American-born. In general, Vietnamese-speaking individuals reveal similar patterns described in the other chapters of the book, that is, a shift towards English.
In chapter 9, Renate Ludanyi depicts the current state of affairs of the German language. A large number of US residents claim German heritage, yet only a very small percentage can actually use the language. A significant shift towards English started during the early twentieth century although English-German bilingualism “thrived until World War I” (2011:160). In the present, while German is taught at many levels, signs of revitalization are scarce.
In chapter 10, Hae-Young Kim discusses the status of Korean. Despite a recent increase in the number of Korean native speakers -- especially in urban areas of California and New York -- the external input that second and third generation speakers are exposed to is not sufficient to maintain the language. Postsecondary education in Korean is mainly aimed at (i) maintaining a 'symbolic' link of Korean heritage speakers to their identity; and (ii) US agencies' trainees since North Korea is currently perceived as a national, political and ideological threat.
Olga Kagan and Kathleen Dillon also report an increase in the number of Russian speakers (chapter 11). Nonetheless, the public presence of the language is practically inexistent except in large urban areas such as New York. In addition, funding for the teaching of Russian has decreased since the US government no longer considers Russia a serious threat. As a result, Russian is almost nonexistent in today's US educative landscape contributing to the rapid language shift towards mainstream English.
In chapter 12, Anna de Fina and Luciana Fellin lay out the history of Italian in the US. Despite the salient, strong cultural attachment of individuals claiming Italian descent, only a small percentage of them can actually speak the language. The sharp decline in the number of Italian speakers especially took off during World War II when they were portrayed as one of the nation's enemies. Moreover, the diglossic condition between standard Italian and other regional dialects made it difficult for in-group communication contributing to abandonment of the language and the election of English as their lingua franca. On the other hand, negative attitudes toward the Italian language and culture have recently shifted directions resulting in a larger presence of Italian courses in secondary and postsecondary education.
In chapter 13, Sonia Shiri argues that, despite the fact that the Arabic population enjoys high rates of education and wealth in the US, negative attitudes towards this ‘critical language’ point in the direction of language shift. In addition, the fact that Arabic itself is a diglossic language, does not contribute with its maintenance in educative contexts, where the disconnection between the different dialectal varieties used at Arabic-speaking homes and the standard Arabic become more obvious to the heritage speakers.
In chapter 14, Ana Maria Carvalho examines the current situation of Portuguese. In the past, Portuguese-speaking immigrants came mainly from Portugal, Cape Verde and Brazil. In the recent years, Brazilian immigrants have become the most numerous. Isolated attempts to maintain the language and the traditions are based mainly on ethnic pride. Despite this, shifting toward English seems inevitable.
The status of Polish is discussed in chapter 15. Bozena Nowicka McLees and Katarzyna Dziwirek attribute the higher-than-normal rates of language preservation in metropolitan environments such as Chicago to the strong sense of ethnic pride that resulted from the political hardship that the Polish community faced during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This trend however, does not suffice for us to consider the language out of the danger zone. As a result, most individuals who claim Polish descent do not speak Polish.
Finally, Terrence Wiley completes this collection with a chapter dedicated to Language Policy in the US. Wiley addresses the need for a comprehensive national language policy that shifts focus away from English monolingualism and ends the undervaluing of minority languages.
''Language Diversity in the USA'' is a welcome addition to the field. While previous research endeavors have illuminated a general idea of the current and past US linguistic landscapes (e.g. Ferguson & Heath, 1981; Johnson, 2000; Finegan & Rickford, 2004), this volume is innovative in that each chapter addresses both the overall situation and the specifics of the ten most commonly spoken non-English languages in the United States. This comprehensive volume further sets itself apart by its research contributions from top linguistic scholars with expertise in each of the minority languages. In particular, Potowski's introductory chapter successfully addresses the increasingly polemical topic of 'immigrant' languages threatening the hegemony of English and, with it, American national unity. This is especially beneficial and eye-opening to beginning students at a moment when topics such as immigration and immigration reform make the headlines on a daily basis.
All in all, Potowski's ''Language Diversity in the USA'' is an exceptional book aimed at educators and students interested in the field of languages in contact. While at times it may be repetitive in its content, it provides all necessary background and up-to-date information on the most commonly spoken languages in the country. In my opinion, it would make a fine textbook for an undergraduate class on 'Languages in Contact in the US' or 'Bilingualism'. Conveniently, the chapters that constitute the body of the book follow the same format, starting with historical description, then moving to description of the demographics and the public presence of the language in the government, the media and in education. Each chapter provides evidence of both language maintenance and shift to English. In addition, the final section of each chapter makes the book particularly suitable for classroom use. In this section, two well-thought-out questions encourage critical thinking and discussion. Even advanced students and researchers in the field should consider the volume a useful starting point.
Ferguson, C. A., Heath, S. B., & Hwang, D. (1981). Language in the USA. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Finegan, E., & Rickford, J. R. (2004). Language in the U.S.A: Themes for the 21st century. New York: Cambridge University.
Johnson, F. (2000). Speaking culturally: Language diversity in the United States. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Diego Pascual y Cabo is a Ph.D. candidate in Hispanic linguistics at the
University of Florida. His primary research interests lie in the field of
languages in contact, bilingualism, heritage language acquisition, second
language acquisition, and socio-linguistic identity.