I visited New York for the first time in June. I expected imposing glass structures, people scurrying myopically to their workplaces and back again, and a pulsating Times Square on every corner. Fortunately, we stayed in Brooklyn, and all my expectations were turned on their heads. Flip-flops abounded and constituted the preferred means of transport between cafés and bars separated only by the thick summer haze.
The fact that New York City is one of the most linguistically rich locations on earth was made abundantly clear to me on my first day. Sitting on the subway, I overheard numerous people switching effortlessly from one language to another on the phone. Posters warned me in seven languages to stay away from the electrified rails. In Europe, we rattle on self-indulgently about how cosmopolitan our cities are, but none cater so conspicuously to the needs of their populations as New York does. This surprised me. I mean, this is the US, right? A nation where a mere 10% of the population have passports and just 14% of the population speak a second language.
Let’s bust that myth first of all. 35 to 42% is a more accurate estimate of the percentage of Americans with a passport, although it should be noted that this is still significantly lower than the 70% average in western European countries. And while the country may suffer from a foreign language deficit, this is certainly not the case in New York. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, just 51% of New Yorkers speak English and only English at home. Spanish is spoken by approximately 25% of the population. Chinese is spoken by around 5%, while French and Russian make up around 2% each.
In European countries, much of the billboard advertising is in English — like our use of French to advertise classy Cologne and German for reliable tech, English is used as a vehicle for conveying modern and cool. An inability to understand English means an inability to understand your environment. New Yorkers are presented with a similar predicament — the knowledge gap is constantly present, and the linguistic cornucopia feeds curiosity.
I’ve been learning languages with varying degrees of intensity for around ten years now, but rarely had I felt such a compulsion to learn as when I was in New York. I loved the fact that you have to choose a language in order to proceed when you buy a metro ticket – I successfully recharged my metrocard to the airport in Russian on my last day. I played games with the public information in Spanish, trying to form nonsense sentences out of the words learned and revised from the signs. When something was completely inaccessible to me, I would pull out my smartphone and open Google Translate’s superb, welcome-to-the-future camera app. Signs transformed magically from Chinese to English right in front of my eyes.
This, of course, merely constitutes the city’s epidermal layer. Delve just a little deeper and there are endless cultural opportunities, from Swedish marionette theatres to no-frills Latin-American restaurants hidden in loading docks, to the established art galleries, such as the Neue Galerie, which cater exclusively to art originating from a certain country or region. New York is a great place to learn a language because it teases and tugs at one’s curiosity, and then offers you a plethora of opportunities to indulge it.