How many languages are spoken at LaGuardia? There is no simple answer.
by Tomonori Nagano
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Tomonori Nagano is an Associate Professor of Japanese and Linguistics, he started teaching at LaGuardia in 2008. Tomonori received his Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Linguistics from the CUNY Graduate Center and his MA in TESOL from New York University. He is currently serving as the coordinator for the Modern Langauges and Literatures Program at LaGuardia Community College.
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How many languages are spoken at LaGuardia? 100? 150? You may have heard figures like these thrown around, but this question is not so easy to answer.
LaGuardia Community College's Institutional Profile 2019 (Lerer, 2019) shows that our students spoke 106 different languages as of 2014 and 98 different languages in 2018. The American Community Survey, a sampled version of the U.S. Census administered every year, asks questions about language in their surveys and their latest data in 2019 indicate that there are over 80 languages and language groups (such as Niger-Congo languages) in the borough of Queens1. Both data sets include largely the same set of major languages in Queens such as Spanish (495,560 or 22.3% according to ACS) , Chinese (142,416 / 6.1%), Korean (39,821 / 2.1%), Bengali (74,462 / 2.7%), Filipino and Tagalog (38,826 / 1.4%), and Russian (34,413 / 1.5%). Just to illustrate this point, I have shown the top 30 languages in Queens (with the ACS data through IPUMS (Ruggles et al., 2018)) and LaGuardia Community College (with the Institutional Research data) in Tables 1 and 2.
|N/A or blank||131,375||136,749||136,817||141,592||145,257||147,001||142,861||144,061||139,656||134,806||6.1%|
|French or Haitian Creole||35,633||30,331||33,014||27,915||23,799||26,164||29,504||28,226||23,091||33,648||1.3%|
|Other Asian languages||6,359||4,816||5,898||6,445||10,154||8,130||378||1,096||982||1,147||0.2%|
|Year||Fall 2016||Fall 2017||Fall 2018||Fall 2019||Ave. percent|
|Others (about 70 languages)||258||205||231||148||2.5%|
|Total (with responses)||10,917||8,18||8,885||5,586||100.0%|
So, can we settle that a slightly more than 100 languages are spoken in Queens and at LaGuardia Community College? The answer is not quite that simple.
Recently a group of linguists working on the preservation of less common languages has proposed that many more languages are spoken in New York City than previously recorded. Daniel Kaufman and Ross Perlin at Endangered Language Alliance (https://elalliance.org) argue that a large number of indigenous and endangered languages (languages spoken by so few people that they may not be transmitted to the following generation) exist in New York City2. According to their measure, there are over 800 languages in New York City and many of them are found in Queens, the most linguistically diverse borough among the five boroughs.
In order to understand this wide gap in the estimated numbers of languages, we need to visit the basic concept of “language” and a fundamental question of what makes one version human communicative code a language rather than a dialect (or vice versa).
A Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich once said “A language is a dialect with an army and navy” to illustrates the conventional perception about languages. For many people, language is a sociopolitical construct, which is inherently rooted in the imperialistic, nation-state ideology of human civilization. In other words, a language has strong affiliation with the identity of a nation state and, therefore, its boundary with another language largely overlaps the national or regional boundary. Consider the so-called Chinese language, which serves as a good example of this imperialistic notion of language. The Chinese language is, in reality, a group of a large number of dialects/languages, many of which are not mutually intelligible. The idea of the Chinese language as a single language is widely accepted and the Chinese language is sometimes considered as synonymous to Mandarin. However, the idea of Mandarin as the national language of China dismisses other major dialects/languages such as Cantonese (spoken by over 60 million speakers), Shanhainese (over 70 million speakers), and Taiwanese (over 15 million speakers).
Also, this conventional notion of language often entails linguistic codification, a process of standardizing language varieties by selecting “correct” use of a language from other “incorrect” usages. The prescribed and standardized orthography, vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciations are considered as essential for a language, which consequently dismisses many languages without standardized written forms.
Linguists often employ a less-common but more linguistically oriented approach called “mutual intelligibility” to identify languages among different human communication codes. If two speakers use different varieties of communication code and if they do not understand each other (i.e., lack mutual intelligibility), these two communication codes are considered to be two independent languages. If the two speakers sufficiently understand each other (i.e., having mutual intelligibility), these two communication codes are considered as two dialects of one language. Mutual intelligibility is usually established in oral language and it is a convenient measure for a large number of languages/dialects that lack any standardized written language tradition, which would be otherwise remain unrecognized as languages in the conventional sociopolitical definition of language.
All in all, linguists use a combination of sociopolitical considerations and mutual intelligibility in order to define languages. For example, Ethnologue (https://www.ethnologue.com), the most comprehensive database of languages, identify 7,117 languages in the world (Eberhard, Simons, & Fennig, 2020). International Organization for Standardization (ISO)'s latest language codes (ISO 639-3; https://iso639-3.sil.org) has 7,968 entries for human languages.
One example in this comprehensive catalog of languages is Mamuju, a language spoken in the Sulawesi province of Indonesia. It is estimated that there are about 62,900 speakers of Mamuju. According to Ethnologue , Mamuju is considered a threatened language since native speakers of Mamuju are not actively transmitting this linguistic heritage to the next generation of the community. Many speakers of Mamuju more frequently use Mandar and Indonesian, two dominant languages of the region and the country. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to locate an active speaker of Mamuju even in Indonesia.
Mamuju, a dying language in a remote area in Southeast Asia, was one of the least recognized languages in New York City – until Daniel Kaufman of Endangered Language Alliance unexpectedly met Husni Husain, a native speaker of Mamuju, at his friend’s wedding party in New York City (Roberts, 2010). Husni had lived in the U.S. for several decades by then, but he had not been using his native tongue. Neither his wife nor his children used Mamuju. Husni is probably the only speaker of Mamuju in New York City and he is contributing this rare language to the linguistic diversity of Queens – by himself.
So, how many languages are spoken at LaGuardia? Maybe the answer to this question depends on one of your classmates who secretly speaks an extremely rare and underrecognized language.
References and Footnotes
1The U.S. Census Bureau has recently developed a new web-based interface for analyzing the census data. The URL is https://data.census.gov/cedsci/.
2See various articles featuring their language preservation effort in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/29/nyregion/29lost.html), New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/30/a-loss-for-words), Aljazeera (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2010/05/17/dying-languages-living-in-new-york/), and BBC (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20716344)
Eberhard, D. M., Simons, G. F., & Fennig, C. D. (2020). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (23rd ed.). Dallas, Texas: SIL International.
Lerer, N. (2019). Laguardia Community College institutional profile 2019 (Tech. Rep.). New York, NY: Office of Institutional Research & Assessment, LaGuardia Community College.
Roberts, S. (2010). The lost languages, found in New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/29/nyregion/29lost.html
Ruggles, S., Flood, S., Goeken, R., Grover, J., Meyer, E., Pacas, J., & Sobek, M. (2018). IPUMS USA: Version 8.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS. (https://doi.org/10.18128/D010.V8.0)