October 18, 2013

Foreign Language Hopscotch


As a habitual conceiver of overly ambitious, but really exciting-sounding projects, one of the ones I’ve been most disappointed in never quite getting around to was the project to learn a few basic words in all the major languages spoken in New York the year I turned 30. 30 came, 30 went, and I still didn’t speak any Korean.

But this weekend, that’s all going to change. Because the annual Wall and Bridges Festival has made my pipe dream come true: on Sunday afternoon, at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Carroll Gardens, a group of teachers will be offering 30-minute classes in the languages of New York. They include:

Arabic (Darija)

Each class will consist of a brief introduction to the language and culture under discussion, and a chance to learn some key words and phrases.

This is the right project for the right city, because New York is multilingual on a grand scale. In a 2010 New York Times article about tracking down endangered languages in the city, Daniel Kaufman, adjunct professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center, CUNY, called it “the capital of language density in the world.” Somewhere around 800 languages are spoken here, and in nearly half the households, English isn’t the primary language. The languages most widely spoken include Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian, and French Creole, but there are many others that have significant footholds, as a WNYC study found last year: Polish, Arabic, Yiddish, Italian, Tagalog, and Urdu all have communities of speakers between 80,000 and 40,000 strong.

Last year, a team of researchers mapped language use in the city through Twitter, collecting 8.5 millions tweets and producing a very pretty map.

The patterns are striking, and make a good case — perhaps the only good case — for spending more time in midtown, where the languages being used are incredibly varied. Undoubtedly, this is a reflection of the sheer density of different kinds of people in midtown, but also apparently the fact that they are all tweeting away like mad up there. Other languages are concentrated in particular areas or follow paths in the urban infrastructure: when writing about the project for Fast Company last year, Zak Stone noticed that Spanish tweets “trace the path of Roosevelt Boulevard in Queens.”

The Foreign Language Hopscotch event, in drawing its teachers from the city’s communities and allowing students to try a number of languages, will enable New Yorkers to participate a little more deeply in languages that are being used around them, and at the same time to get a sense of the breadth of the city’s linguistic diversity. Plus, obviously, it’s just going to be a huge amount of fun, mangling some Lithuanian. And who knows, if I get a couple words under my belt, I can always translate listicles for Buzzfeed.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.