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Review of  Language Diversity in the USA

Reviewer: Diego Pascual y Cabo
Book Title: Language Diversity in the USA
Book Author: Kim Potowski
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 22.907

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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

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.
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.

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