Language Diversity

The article linked above racks up the next-most-common language (after English and Spanish) spoken at home in the fifty states of the US. The article is worth five minutes to read and consider, and it contains a surprise or two. But let’s consider a further point or two.

First, the US Department of Defense runs the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) in Monterey, California in which they provide language and related cultural training for military officers and other government officials. There are over 7000 languages spoken world wide, but some are much more common than others. If you had to choose which to teach, how would you decide? As it turns out, the DLIFLC (can’t do government without acronyms) teaches about a dozen languages at any given time. Their course offerings include:

Category I&II languages – 36 week-long courses:

  • French
  • Spanish
  • Indonesian

Category III languages – 48 week-long courses:

  • Hebrew
  • Persian Farsi
  • Russian
  • Tagalog

Category IV languages – 64 week-long courses:

  • Modern Standard Arabic
  • Arabic – Egyptian
  • Arabic – Iraqi
  • Arabic – Levantine
  • Chinese Mandarin
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Pashto

No surprise, but the length of the class reflects the difficulty of the language. But if you were to develop a language institute for some other purpose, perhaps to support missionary outreach, which languages would you choose? The menu might look a little different, depending on your purpose.

This gives rise to a second consideration: the original article linked at the top of this post asserts that the US is a very diverse country when it comes to languages and cultures, but how diverse are the ingredients in our national melting pot of a society? At one extreme, English, French, and Spanish were the only languages I heard while growing up in southeast Missouri. At the other extreme, there are between 185 and 225 (depending on your data) different languages spoken in homes in the Los Angeles area. We could expect similar levels of diversity in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Houston, New York City, Miami, and other major cities. Even smaller cities and towns may be more cosmopolitan than we might expect. So how would you decide which languages to teach to be able to work in those situations? Or is there an alternative strategy for working with those populations? Food for thought, and interesting to consider.

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