Jackson Heights will have a new representative in Congress

Nobody knows exactly how many languages are spoken in America.

The most complete count by the Census Bureau a decade ago found over 350 languages, but the real number is likely several times that. A recent survey by linguists has identified 700 languages in New York alone, making it the most linguistically diverse city on record. That means around 10% of the world’s languages are represented in America’s largest city, including not just all major national languages but hundreds of indigenous, minority, and primarily spoken languages. Today many are highly endangered, even as their speakers are arriving.

While New York City’s story may seem unique given its continuous history as an immigration gateway dating back 400 years, this diversity defines America as a whole since its earliest history. Hundreds of Native languages are connected to this land, of which some are still spoken today and others are now being revived against great challenges following histories of colonization, genocide, and displacement.

English is undoubtedly the common language in the U.S., but multilingualism has always been fundamental. Around half of residents in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and San Jose speak a language other than English at home. While Spanish is clearly the second most spoken, hundreds of others from Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia are widely used in communities across America. In a nation as diverse as the world, there are no truly foreign languages as was recently claimed.

Cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and Houston are starting to approach New York’s diversity levels. Indigenous languages persist in the face of pressure to shift to larger languages, like Zapotec in LA, Yucatec Maya in San Francisco, and Mam in Oakland. Languages like Hmong and Somali are integral parts of communities in the Twin Cities, as Amharic is in Washington D.C. and Cape Verdean Creole is in Boston.

It’s notable that smaller towns not known for diversity have become homes for endangered language communities: Speakers of Maay Maay in Lewiston, Maine; Karen in Utica, New York; Marshallese in Springdale, Arkansas; K’iche’ in New Bedford, Massachusetts; Rhade and other Montagnard languages in Greensboro, North Carolina; and Tai Dam in central Iowa.

These groups and many others have formed an unrecognized but growing American network of refuge, as political and economic hardship has displaced them. While the arrival of once rural languages into cities brings challenges, there are also great opportunities to document, maintain, and revitalize endangered languages worldwide.

The key role of immigrants and refugees in reviving struggling communities is increasingly acknowledged, but the importance of language remains underestimated. Those who risk everything for a new life in America are often members of persecuted ethnolinguistic or religious minorities, defined by deeply rooted yet imperiled languages. Today they are Maya, Bantu, and Hazara as much as they are from Guatemala, Somalia, or Afghanistan.

Official data currently captures only a fraction of this diversity, which remains inaudible and invisible to policymakers and most English speakers. Progress includes the Census updating its language identification and more city- and state-level language access policies.

Now more than ever, “Ellis Island” exists everywhere in America, bringing unprecedented human diversity. It is time to listen to the hundreds of Indigenous and endangered languages spoken not just in major cities but in neighboring towns. Both languages and their communities increasingly depend on survival in American diaspora, but there is little linguistic support beyond local efforts. Yet by serving as a refuge for smaller groups worldwide and making space for their languages, our nation fulfills some of its founding principles and becomes more than a single nation—a microcosm of our diverse and imperiled planet, in all its languages.

Adapted from Perlin’s new book