Amazing Places

More Languages Are Spoken in This American Place Than Anywhere on Earth

Growing up, you may have heard different languages spoken around your community. Maybe a bunch, maybe a couple, or maybe just one. But if you've ever been to the language capital of the world, you've been surrounded by hundreds of languages at any given moment — perhaps without even realizing it.

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Pardon My French

According to to the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), one area in a U.S. state is home to more languages than any single place on Earth. There are 800 languages spoken throughout New York City, but the borough of Queens is Earth's language champion: a whopping 138 unique languages are spoken in that borough alone. In fact, you may be more likely to hear a super-obscure language in Queens than you are in the small, remote village the language came from.

"It is the capital of language density in the world," Daniel Kaufman, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, tells the New York Times. "We're sitting in an endangerment hot spot where we are surrounded by languages that are not going to be around even in 20 or 30 years." (You can see a comprehensive language map of Queens right here, created by Molly Roy with help from the ELA.)

The borough is only a mere 108 square miles (280 square kilometers), so the many different cultures and languages within it are all packed in close proximity. Why so many languages? Thank New York City's role as America's welcome mat: It's been many an immigrant's first stop in the U.S.

What kind of tongues will you be able to hear in Queens? Here's an abbreviated list to give you a taste: English, Greek, Filipino, Urdu, Indonesian, Russian, Japanese, Lithuanian, Croatian, Nepali, Sherpa, Gurung, Mustang, Finnish, Latvian, Chavacano, Waray-Waray, Minangkabau, Bukharian, and many, many more.

View of Manhattan from Queens

Language Lovers

Just because many languages are spoken in Queens doesn't mean everyone is walking around fluent in five tongues. According to 2015 Census data, 44 percent of the population aged 5 years or older in Queens spoke only English at home, whereas 56 percent spoke a language other than English. If you're looking to boost your personal language library, research shows that something called spaced repetition can help you learn languages faster than other methods. After some time, who knows, you may be able to call yourself a polyglot, or even a hyperpolyglot — that's the word for extraordinary language-learners who possess the ability to master and retain upwards of ten languages. A pit stop in Queens might give you all the inspiration you need to make it happen.

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For a closer look at the languages in NYC, check out Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's book "Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto April 29, 2018

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