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Language discrimination in the United States

The United States is a linguistically diverse country. English is spoken with a variety of accents - different people sound different, based not only on their geographical origin, but also on their social class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or level of formal education. Oftentimes, native speakers also hear an accent in the English spoken by those whose first language is not English. And about 20% of the US population speaks a language other than English at home (2005 US Census Bureau data). However, although it is illegal in the United States to discriminate people on the basis of their gender, race, ethnicity, national origin or religion, there is no piece of federal legislation that explicitly protects people from discrimination on the basis of their language or their accent when speaking English. Is this a reason for concern? How frequent is linguistic discrimination in the United States, and how does it manifest itself? Is there anything inherently discriminatory in expecting everybody to speak only English, or even to speak ‘proper’ English?

You can explore this and other connected issues in the following courses: LIN230, LIN211, ENG339, LAN305, LAN381

picture of a mouth

Español en los Estados Unidos

City Photo

In 2008, there were an estimated 52 million people in the United States who spoke a language other than English at home (UC Census Bureau data). Of these, about 32 million spoke Spanish, although the actual number is probably higher. Among a variety of Spanish dialects that are represented in our country, Mexican Spanish is the most prominent one, since about 2/3 of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the United States come from Mexico. Most of the Spanish speakers live in the Southwestern states (California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, etc.), but their numbers are also growing in other areas, especially the Southeastern states, as well as in Pennsylvania. In spite of what these data might suggest and contrary to what many people believe, Spanish is generally not preserved inside the families once immigrants settle in the United States. As a matter of fact, there is conclusive research that shows that the vast majority of third-generation Latinos in the United States do not speak Spanish. Spanish is not being transmitted from generation to generation, but the number of Spanish speakers in the United States is still growing. How can this contradiction be explained? Will the current trends continue in the future? How different are the current circumstances of contact between English and Spanish from those involving other languages in the past? What other languages, apart from Spanish, are becoming more common in the United States?

You can explore this and other related issues in LIN211, SPA340, SPA353, SPA370

Language Acquisition

Linguists often say that a first language is not learned, but acquired. Contrary to what used to be believed, we don't learn languages by listening to our parents, remembering words and then repeating what we hear. And despite what many parents believe, insisting that young children don't make 'mistakes' when they talk and calling them out when they do is less effective than they assume. Memory does play a role in language development, but if memory was all there was to it, it would be hard to explain, for instance, why children who grow up in English-speaking countries say things like hitted instead of hit (preterite) - even though it is quite likely that they have never heard an adult say that particular form. By now, there is a pretty solid consensus among linguists that we are born with a cognitive ability that allows us to acquire a language (or several languages) as children in only a few years by making generalizations on the basis of the linguistic material or input that we are exposed to, and testing these generalizations against the subsequent input. It is in this quasi-simultaneous process of language growth and language testing that acquisition errors occur. How does language emerge in our brains, and how is this process guided? If all humans share this linguistic ability to learn a language, are there any differences in the way that children in different parts of the world build their knowledge of their first language(s)? How do specific cognitive, developmental and environmental factors affect a child's ability to acquire a language successfully?

You can explore this and other related issues in LIN230, SPA340, SPP204, SPP240

Linguqistics Doctor image

The Sounds of Language

School of Language

Languages across the world differ enormously in the combinations of sounds that they use. For instance, some languages have only a few contrastive sounds or phonemes, whereas others have a much larger number. Polynesian languages are known for having very small sets of phonemes. For instance, Tahitian or Maori only have 5 vowels and 9 consonants each – compare with English, which in its standard American version has 11 or 12 vowels and 24 consonants. Swedish also has 24 consonants, but 17 contrasting vowels. The current winner seems to be Taa (also called !Xoon), an African language spoken in Botwsana and Namibia, which has been described as having as many as 83 consonants and 20 vowels! Does that mean that Taa is overall a harder language to learn than Hawaiian or English? Which other levels of language, besides sounds and phonemes, define the complexity of a language and set it apart from others?

You can explore this and other related issues in LIN230, ENG330, SPA365, FRE302, SPP207

Too old to learn a language?

Well, it depends on what you mean by 'to learn'. Adults often find it hard to learn a second language, which contrasts with the fact that children seem to acquire their first language (or several languages, if they grow up in a multilingual environment) effortlessly and in only a few years. Consequently, linguists often talk of a 'critical period' in language acquisition, which corresponds roughly with one's childhood. Past this period, proficiency in a second language is much harder to attain, and it will likely never reach the degree of development typical of a native speaker, even if we immerse ourselves in the target language for years. Should you just give up and not try to learn a second language if you are not a child anymore? Or can language learning happen even if its end product is not exactly the same level of proficiency as that of a native speaker? Which factors impede or enhance language learning in adults?

You can explore this and other related issues in LIN230, SPA340, SPP204, SPP 240

Old world language

How many languages are there in the world?

World of language

This question is harder to answer than it seems. And not just because there are a lot (about 6,900 according to The Ethnologue), but especially because it is difficult to define exactly when we have two different languages instead of, say, two varieties of the same language. Everybody would probably agree that what is spoken by most people in West Chester and what is spoken by most people in the highlands of Scotland are varieties of the same language (i.e., English), even though there are significant differences in the sounds, structures and words used by the people living in each place. However, it is also assumed that Portuguese and Spanish are two different languages altogether, even though their speakers can understand each other to a great extent and share about 90% of their vocabulary. Speakers of Hindi and speakers of Urdu also understand each other just fine for the most part, even though each of them tends to be spoken in different countries (i.e., India and Pakistan) and their speakers also use different words and structures. Serbian and Croatian used to be considered varieties of the same language until recently, but now many claim that they are in fact separate languages. So where do we make the cut? Do we separate languages based on linguistic criteria, or do cultural and social attitudes play a role? Are there fewer languages today than before? Is the strong influence of English as an international language a threat to linguistic and cultural diversity? Will everybody end up speaking just one language?

You can explore this and other related issues in LIN211, LIN230, LIN/COM415, SPA340, SPA370, ENG339, ENG340

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