Tower Of Babel


One in 5 Americans speaks a language other than English at home. Three Indian languages rank among the top 20 foreign languages. 
America is surely the Tower of Babel of modern times: walk in the streets in major cities like San Francisco or New York and you’re bound to hear a cacophony of different tongues. Visit the scores of ethnic enclaves like Little India, Little Russia or the Korea and China Towns, and you see the writing on the walls, and it’s certainly not all English.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 1 in 5 people, or 47 million U.S. residents age 5 and older, spoke a language other than English at home in 2000, an increase of 15 million people since 1990.

Susham Bedi with her Hindi students at Columbia University.

Three Indian languages were among the top 20 languages spoken at home – Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati.

Hindi with 317,057 ranked 16 and Urdu with 262,900, ranked 18. “In 1990, we didn’t have Urdu as a separate category so the total number of Hindi speakers in 1990 was 331,484 but this included Urdu speakers,” explains Mike Bergman of the Census Bureau. doubled.”

“In 1990 the Gujarati speakers were only 102,418 but in 2000 Gujarati comes in 19th in the top 20 list with 225, 988 speakers – that’s more than doubled.”
An additional 439,239 people reported speaking other Indic languages, such as Punjabi, Bengali and Malayalam.

The number of people who spoke a non-English language at home at least doubled in six states between 1990 and 2000, with the largest percentage increase in Nevada (193 percent). Georgia’s residents who spoke a non-English language at home increased by 164 percent, followed by North Carolina (151 percent).

A majority of the people who spoke a language other than English at home also reported they spoke English “very well.” According to the report, after English (215.4 million) and Spanish (28.1 million), Chinese (2 million) was the language most commonly spoken at home, overtaking French, German and Italian over the decade of the 90s.

Professor S.N. Sridhar and his wife, Professor Meena Sridhar, who is director of the Center for India Studies, have both been keepers of the Indian languages at Stony Brook, State University of New York. Sridhar heads the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies and is professor of Linguistics.

“India is an extremely multilingual country,” he says, pointing out that while Hindi is the official language and English the associate official language, the constitution lists 20 languages but there are literally hundreds of languages in India, all living, vital languages. “If you even take only languages that are spoken by more than 100,000 people, there are more than 400 languages like that. There are many major languages like Gondi, which is a tribal language and is not even written down, but is spoken by 4 million people.”

While the first generation of Indian immigrants is completely bilingual, and in many cases, even tri-lingual, what will be the future of the Indian languages in America? Will American born Indian sons and daughters speak their mother tongues or will they be lost languages?

Parents sometimes push English on young children to ensure that they fit into American society; some parents are in inter-regional marriages and so don’t share a common Indian language, turning to English as the common tongue.
And as intercultural marriages become more common in the Indian American community, there is even less chance of preserving language for the next generation. Writing is even more of a loss, as vibrant languages turn into gibberish for those who cannot decipher the lettering. When parents don’t speak the same language, it can die out or at least turn very rusty on the tongue.

Yet there is good news: Susham Bedi, who has been a professor of Hindi at Columbia University since 1985 and is the director of the Hindi-Urdu language program, has seen the interest in Indian languages steadily grow as the children of immigrants have come of age. She finds many of them already speak some Hindi, especially if they come from places like Queens or New Jersey, where there are active communities built around local temples.

“When children are in their early teens and in school, they are trying to be like Americans and give up everything that is Indian,” observes Bedi. “But once they go to college there’s a big change that happens. Their personalities are developing and they see how they are different from other Americans, and their curiosity about who they are and questions about their identity make them want to learn their languages.”

Many of the students might be native Malayalam, Tamil or Kannada speakers at home, but are interested in learning Hindi because that’s the language they would be able to use the most if they traveled to India. Bedi also finds Bollywood films are very popular with the young and actually help them to learn Hindi: “Bollywood inspires them to learn the language and even pop music has so much of Hindi and Punjabi now. So their natural curiosity makes them go to their roots.” Another reason for the growth of South Asian language learners, she believes, could be because Hindi, Bengali and Tamil are now part of the language curriculum at Columbia and students earn credits for them, just as they do for Spanish or French.

Until the 80’s the languages taught at the universities were mainly European languages and at the undergraduate level there was no incentive to learn these languages. Once Hindi and other Indian languages were added to the options available in the undergraduate language requirements, students found that a great way to learn their native tongue and actually get credits for it. Some universities also offer Indian languages in non-credit summer programs.

Meena Sridhar, associate professor of Linguistics and India Studies, who has researched language and cultural maintenance among Asian Indian children in the U.S. since 1983, says “They are not losing the language as such, but many of them don’t have the opportunity to learn the language, especially those who are growing up in small towns rather than cosmopolitan towns.”
She points out a child growing up in some small community in say, Indiana, where the family may be the only Hindi speakers, will find it harder to maintain the language, whereas in large Indian communities children find it easier to pick up culture and language.

There are, for example, more than 2000 undergraduates of Indian background on the Stonybrook campus, and they do speak the language. Meena Sridhar says, “It’s not perfect grammar, but then we linguists don’t worry about perfectly formed grammatical sentences. They can communicate and so language is being maintained.” But, she adds, “How long it’s going to be maintained is a difficult question to answer.”

Parents do seem to be trying: community organizations, cultural centers like Bharati Vidya Bhavan, and temples are offering language and culture classes. The Ganesha Pathshala is the latest endeavor by the Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing to bring American-born Indian children in touch with their cultural heritage. Children come to learn the languages of their ancestry – Telegu, Kannada, Tamil, Hindi and Sanskrit. And this story is repeating itself in Hindu temples across America.

Says Meena Sridhar: “We are very happy to see the Indian community is finally getting organized. The Chinese and Koreans have been doing this for a while and the Jewish community is superb, very well organized for the teaching of Hebrew and religion.” The Sridhars, through their outreach program at the Center for India Studies at Stony Brook are often asked by school districts to conduct workshops on Indian culture for school administrators. Many parents also contact them with the vexing question of whether children should be brought up bilingual or taught just English to get ahead in the American world.

And what do they tell those parents?

Meena Sridhar says, “We tell them there’s absolutely no reason as to why their children shouldn’t be exposed to two languages or more, because there’s no evidence in research to show that one language would interfere with the other in any way.
“If you look at India or Africa, most people are bilingual and trilingual. Look at Singapore and you see many people learn 2 or 3 languages from very young ages. It does not hamper their cognitive development and there’s more research to show it actually helps children.”

And in today’s globalized world, facility with another language is prized.

Indeed, the advice for parents is simple: speak to the children in their native language, and also expose them to English.

Says Meena Sridhar: “Children are very good at picking up languages right up till the early teens. If they can be exposed to three or four languages, there is absolutely no reason to think that they won’t be able to learn those languages, and it will not interfere with their other learning.”  

Top 20 Spoken Foreign Languages in USA 
Spanish 28,101,052 
Chinese 2,022,143 
French 1,643,838 
German 1,383,442 
Tagalog 1,224,241 
Vietnamese 1,009,627 
Italian 1,008,370 
Korean 894,063 
Russian 706,242 
Polish 667,414 
Arabic 614,582 
Portuguese 564,630 
Japanese 477,997 
French Creole 453,368 
Greek 365,436 
Hindi 317,057 
Persian 312,085 
Urdu 262,900 
Gujarathi 235,988 
Serbo-Croatian 233,865

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