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Managing Language in a Multicultural Nation

In a global economy, the need to nurture, cultivate and manage multilingual resources within the United States is more pronounced than ever. John Baugh explains why.


Although American English, in all its diversity, is unquestionably our dominant national language, this country has always had a complex multilingual history. Long before European settlers colonized North and South America, thousands of indigenous languages thrived from coast to coast. As colonists and slaves populated the area, multilingualism in America increased — albeit under the growing domination of provincial American English dialects. And with each new wave of immigrants from every conceivable point on the globe, the linguistic and cultural diversity of the United States has continued to grow.

Given the demands of the birth of the American nation, language planning tended to be neglected. As a result, the political and economic clout of the early English settlers in the original 13 colonies established a sociolinguistic hierarchy that still prevails.

Linguistics helps us to understand our polygot nation

Today, the academic endeavor called linguistics helps us to understand our polyglot nation. Scholars who study applied linguistics, anthropological linguistics, educational linguistics, historical linguistics, dialectology, sociolinguistics and more, have contributed to our understanding of multilingual America.

Although many citizens are deeply committed to the role played by American English as our pre-eminent national language, we should never lose sight of the fact that this nation of immigrants continually experiences ever-changing linguistic tides as new residents yearn to share the American dream. A dream that often exceeds their English fluency.

The European nations that colonized the Americas left indelible linguistic impressions on their former colonies (including many African countries, Australia, India and parts of Asia). Today, the global spread of the English era owes much of its vibrancy to the economic and technological advantages gained by the U.S. after World War II. Since that time, educators and politicians in nearly every other industrialized country have devoted considerable resources to the teaching of English — in striking contrast to how the vast majority of American schools have reduced or eliminated foreign-language educations as extraneous, if not superfluous.

Today, given the global economy, the need to nurture, cultivate and even manage multilingual resources within America is more pronounced than ever. Some of this linguistic management is being addressed by market forces, as advertisers and broadcasters strive to appeal to the ever growing numbers of non-English speakers who as U.S. residents and citizens are increasingly important consumers of goods and services. Politicians have been keen to learn new languages to demonstrate their empathy for non-English speaking voters. Some employers, including many multinational corporations, have begun to recognize the value of linguistic diversity among their employees; service businesses in particular place great value upon the prospect of hiring bilingual or trilingual workers. Diplomats and military strategists have always recognized the importance of knowing other languages, but rarely have they managed linguistic resources adequately.

The consequences of strategic linguistic mis-management have been devastating. For instance, firefighters, ambulance drivers, and hospital workers across the United States bemoan the fact that many human tragedies could be averted or diminished if it weren’t for communication gaps between those in need of emergency services (who frequently do not speak English) and first responders who lack ready access to vital linguistic translation.

Unfortunately the work of linguists is often overlooked when it comes to managing linguistic diversity in this nation of immigrants. Taking full advantage of America’s tremendous multilingual resources should not be neglected; by doing so we are truly shortsighted. Sociolinguists can play an important role in building a national linguistic infrastructure that can enhance our prospects for multilingual communication along with our well-being.