Language diversity in the USA

Language diversity in the USA. Ed. by Kim Potowski. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. 346. ISBN 9780521745338. $37.99.

Reviewed by Jill Hallett, University of Illinois

This book features the twelve most common languages other than English (LOTEs) spoken in the United States, with additional chapters on language contact, Native American languages, and language policy. Following the chapters are notes, media resources, references, and an index.

In the introductory chapter, Kim Potowski corrects myths about non-English languages in the United States. Suzanne Romaine’s chapter on language contact follows, which discusses bilingualism, introducing issues of identity, language loss, and revitalization.

The following thirteen chapters each feature an introduction, background and current sociolinguistic context, a conclusion, and discussion questions. Teresa L. McCarty’s ‘Native American languages in the USA’ illustrates indigenous situations preceding LOTEs brought by immigration, and includes four case studies of language revitalization efforts.

The top twelve LOTEs in the United States (Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, French, Vietnamese, German, Korean, Russian, Italian, Arabic, Portuguese, and Polish), listed from most- to least-common, are addressed through lenses of history, demographics, public presence (in government, media, and education), and evidence of maintenance and shift.

Several issues recur among these twelve chapters. Third-generation language shift to English is endemic across all LOTEs, despite beliefs that some languages threaten English in the United States. Shift from Vietnamese to English takes only 1.3 to 2.0 generations; shift from Polish to English may take longer due to the history of Polish heritage and parochial education. Domain shift often indicates impending shift to English.

Many authors call for heritage language education; while common languages such as Spanish are beginning to make headway in this area, languages such as Russian and Tagalog lag. Yun Xiao calls Chinese heritage language education a top priority. Authors also bemoan a lack of presence in kindergarten through twelfth-grade education. While languages such as Italian, Arabic, Portuguese, and Polish may be fairly common at the university level, they are rare in secondary education.

Many LOTEs are on the increase, but some early immigrant languages (such as French, German, and Italian) are in decline. Where speakers of a number of dialect backgrounds (e.g. Italian and Arabic) share LOTEs, varieties may converge to a common United States dialect of that language, which excludes some mother varieties and compromises linguistic identity.

The distribution of these twelve languages within the United States is also of interest. Michigan is home to a large percentage of Arabic speakers; Illinois is the state with the highest number of Polish speakers; many American speakers of varieties of French and Creole live in Louisiana; and California and Hawaii host a number of speakers of Asian languages. The public presence in these areas is higher than in other parts of the country.

The final chapter in the volume discusses language policy and planning, noting recent issues over the degree to which LOTEs should be accommodated in the United States. Terrence G. Wiley recommends embracing multilingualism and offers a national policy that promotes English while respecting home languages, while suggesting that we move beyond the myth of the United States as a monolingual nation.