U.S. languages are as rich and diverse as the U.S. population.

The History of Foreign Language Communities in the U.S.

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Since before the arrival of European colonists in the late 15th century, the Americas have been home to a rich array of peoples and ethnic groups, all with their own unique languages and cultures. Over the last 500 years, however, that number has grown exponentially as colonists and then immigrants from all around the world came seeking land, economic opportunity, fame, religious freedom, political autonomy, or any number of other goals.

The immigrant experience is deeply intertwined with the American experience — in fact, 8 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence weren’t even born on American soil. That fact continues today, with immigrants making up 13.5% of the total U.S. population as of 2013.

The U.S.’s immigrant history has also produced one of the most linguistically rich countries in the world. In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that at least 350 languages were spoken in homes throughout the U.S.

Here at Bromberg, we’re celebrating the 4th of July this year by commemorating linguistic diversity in the U.S. So enjoy a history lesson about some of the largest non-English language communities in the U.S., and have a very happy 4th of July, no matter what language you speak.

Languages from the Indian Subcontinent

According to The MigrationPolicy.org, Indian immigration to the United States began in the early part of the 19th century and consisted mostly of manual laborers who came looking for agricultural work in California. Not many Indians came to the U.S. during the next century, however, and harsh immigration laws passed in the first few decades of the 20th century essentially put a hold on continued immigration until the 1960s.

Immigration reform beginning with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act slowly opened the doors for Indians to begin coming to the U.S. for work or to pursue an education at American universities. The rate of Indian immigration to the U.S. began to increase sharply after 1980, however, and today there are more than 2 million immigrants from the Indian subcontinent living in the U.S.

According to WorldAtlas, the vast majority of Indian-Americans speak one of the languages from their home country in addition to English. Those languages include Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Bengali, Panjabi, Telugu, and more, and belong to two main linguistic families: Indo-Aryan and Dravidian.

Indo-Aryan languages, including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, and Panjabi, make up the vast majority of speakers in the U.S. (around 1.9 million people). These languages are part of the larger Indo-European language family, which includes the Romance, Slavic, Germanic, Celtic and Greek languages spoken throughout Europe and several of the languages spoken in the Middle East and Caucuses regions, including Persian (or Farsi), Kurdish, Ossetian, Pashto, and Armenian. More than 1.5 billion people speak Indo-Aryan languages around the world. Some famous members of this community in the U.S. include:

 

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies.
  • Nobel Prize winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen
  • Actors Kal Penn, Danny Pudi, and Aasif Mandvi
  • Alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra
  • Comedians Russell Peters and Hassan Minhaj
  • Fashion designer Rachel Roy
  • “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi
  • Journalist Fareed Zakaria
  • Singer Norah Jones (daughter of sitar virtuoso and Beatles collaborator Ravi Shankar)
  • Ashok Kondabolu and Heems, members of hip-hop group Das Racist
  • PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi
  • Mastercard President Ajay Banga
  • Author Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning physician and author Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley
  • California Senator Kamala Harris
  • U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara

Dravidian languages are thought to predate Indo-Aryan languages and may be indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. Speakers of these languages — including Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, and more — number greater than 220 million worldwide and are concentrated in Sri Lanka, the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and the Indian union territory of Puducherry (formerly known as Pondicherry).  Many members of Indian Dravidian languages communities have emigrated to other parts of the world, and there are sizable expatriate communities in Australia, Mauritius, Singapore, Malaysia, and, of course, the U.S., where around 500,000 people speak a Dravidian language. Some of the most famous members of Dravidian language communities (including Tamil, Telugu, and Malayam people) outside of India and Sri Lanka include:

  • Comedians Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari

    Actor and comedian Aziz Ansari is the creator of the Emmy-winning Netflix series “Master of None.”
  • Director M. Night Shyamalan
  • Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer
  • Google CEO Sundar Pichai
  • Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella
  • Adobe Systems CEO Shantanu Narayen
  • Cisco Systems CEO Padmasree Warrior
  • Soundgarden lead guitarist Kim Thayil

Armenian

The history of Armenian immigration to the U.S. predates the Declaration of Independence by more than 100 years. Virginia court records from the Jamestown colony include references to a “Martin the Armenian” in 1618 or 1619. Though little is known about Martin’s reasons for coming to America, historians suspect that he was brought to Jamestown as a servant to colonial governor George Yeardley.

Two more Armenians were brought to colonial Virginia in the mid-17th century for their expertise in silkworm cultivation. English landowners looking to diversify their exports had previously tried raising silkworms themselves, but the project had failed to gain any traction. Although records don’t indicate what happened to the two Armenian silk experts, one supporter of the colony’s fledgling silk trade wrote a poem eulogizing the trader who had arranged to bring the Armenians to Virginia. 

The Armenian community in America continued to grow over the next two centuries, and expanded significantly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Armenians fled persecution and genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the rest of the 20th century, large numbers of Armenians fleeing political instability or seeking greater economic opportunity came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iran. The U.S. Armenian population continued to grow rapidly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and the U.S. Census Bureau reports that there are now approximately 475,000 ethnic Armenians living in the U.S.

According to WorldAtlas, around 240,000 Armenian-Americans speak the Armenian language. Armenian is an Indo-European language related to all of the major European languages as well as the majority of the languages spoken in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. Modern Armenian has two main dialects: Western and Eastern Armenian. Western Armenian is spoken largely by members of the Armenian Diaspora, whereas Eastern Armenian is spoken primarily by Armenians born in Armenia, Iran, and former Soviet satellite states.

Tennis star Andre Agassi.

Some of the most famous members of the Armenian-American community include:

  • Former World No.1 tennis player Andre Agassi
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Saroyan
  • All four members of the metal band System of a Down
  • “Alvin and the Chipmunks” creator Ross Badasarian, Sr.
  • The Kardashian family
  • Avedis Zildjian, founder of Zildjian Company, the world’s largest cymbal manufacturer
  • Doctor and euthanasia activist Jack Kevorkian

Hmong

The Hmong (or Mong) people are a Southeast Asian ethnic group living primarily in Laos, China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma). Archaeological evidence dating back to 4000 BCE suggests that the Hmong originated in China, where they are believed to have been one of the first groups of people to cultivate rice. Over the next several thousand years, the Hmong regularly found themselves in conflict with various Han Chinese imperial dynasties that attempted to impose their political and cultural dominance throughout the region.

The Hmong were largely successful in their resistance against the developing Chinese imperial state and succeeded in maintaining a unique culture in autonomous communities spread throughout China. Beginning around the turn of the 19th century CE, however, Chinese rulers undertook several military campaigns to suppress ethnic minorities throughout the country, including the Hmong. As a result, the Hmong people fled into the mountainous regions to the south of China that comprise the modern states of Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and especially Laos.

From the mid-19th century to the end of World War II, the Hmong living in Laos established prosperous communities, but experienced persecution at the hands of Laotian and French colonial authorities. During World War II, however, most Hmong remained loyal to the French and Royal Lao governments, fighting against the invading Japanese imperial army. At one point, Hmong soldiers rescued the Laotian king Sisavang Vong from imprisonment by occupying Japanese forces. Owing in large part to their distinguished performance during the war, the Hmong were granted Laotian citizenship in 1947 and several Hmong leaders won important political positions in the post-war Laotian government.

As Communist influence spread throughout Southeast Asia during the 1950s, Laos was thrown into a civil war between the Royal Lao Government and the U.S.S.R-backed Pathet Lao political movement. Fearing the possibility of a Communist takeover in Laos, the CIA (under advisement from President John F. Kennedy) began a series of clandestine anti-Communist operations that would become known as “The Secret War” when the U.S. Congress learned of the operations during the Nixon administration. Hmong general Vang Pao was recruited by the CIA to participate in the conflict at the start of the 1960s. Over the course of the next 15 years, tens of thousands of Hmong soldiers led by Gen. Vang Pao (and around 50,000 Hmong civilians) would die in conflicts with North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces.

As part of the Paris Peace Accords signed in 1973, the U.S. agreed to withdraw all of its military forces from Vietnam and Laos. With the departure of American forces, Hmong and Royal Laotian soldiers were unable to hold back the advancing Communist forces. By the end of 1975, South Vietnam had fallen to the North Vietnamese army and the Pathet Lao had overrun Royal Laotian military positions and overthrown the Laotian monarchy based in Laos’s capital, Vientiane. Recognizing that the war had been lost, Gen. Vang Pao fled to neighboring Thailand along with thousands of his soldiers and their families.

Memorial to Hmong servicemen in Fresno, CA.

Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, the newly installed Communist government undertook a series of violent reprisals against the remaining Hmong for their support of the CIA during the course of the civil war. In response to those reprisals, some of the Laotian Hmong took up arms in a drawn-out anti-Communist insurgency. Many more continued to flee to Thailand or sought respite in Buddhist monasteries and NGO-operated refugee camps.

In return for their support of the CIA, however, many Hmong people were granted political refugee status by the United Nations and allowed to emigrate to the U.S., France, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Today, more than 280,000 Hmong people — nearly all of them political refugees or the descendants of refugees — live in the United States. According to the 2010 U.S. census, the majority of Hmong people in the U.S. reside in Wisconsin, Minnesota and California. Kansas and Michigan also have a modest Hmong population.

According to the CDC, Hmong people in the U.S. generally speak one of two dialects of the Hmong language: White Hmong or Green Hmong. Speakers of one dialect can usually understand speakers of the other dialect –the  differences are comparable to the variation between American and British English. Some notable Hmong Americans include:

  • Minnesota State Senator Mee Moua
  • 2007 World Series of Poker champion Xiao “Jerry” Yang
  • Disney Channel actress Brenda Song
  • Author and journalist Ka Vang
  • Actors Ahney Her and Bee Vang, who played Hmong siblings in Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film “Gran Torino”
  • Minnesota State Representative Cy Thao

Tagalog

Archeological evidence dates human settlement in the islands that constitute the modern Philippines back to at least 67,000 years ago. The islands were continuously occupied for all of that time and were home to rich maritime kingdoms and principalities ruled by Buddhist, Hindu, and eventually Muslim rulers.

Ferdinand Magellan — the Portuguese explorer most famous for launching the first successful circumnavigation of the globe — was the first European to arrive in the Philippines in 1521. He claimed the islands for the King of Spain and began trading with local rulers while attempting to convert them to Christianity. One of the converted rulers succeeded in convincing Magellan to attack a rival on a nearby island, and Magellan was killed in the ensuing battle.

European involvement in the Phillipines didn’t end with Magellan’s death, however. A different Spanish navigator, Miguel López de Legazpi, sailed to the Philippines from Mexico and established a Spanish colony on the island of Cebu. Spanish forces would go on to consolidate their control over the Philippines in the coming decades and rule the islands until 1898, when the territory was ceded to the United States following the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American war.

Emilio Aguinaldo, Filipino revolutionary leader.

Filipinos led by Emilio Aguinaldo had taken up arms against the Spanish colonial government in 1896 and had established an unofficial alliance with the American forces preparing to wrest control of the islands from the Spanish. By 1898, Filipino revolutionary forces had conquered nearly all of the Philippines with the exception of the city of Manila, which they had surrounded with a large military force. With the city surrounded, Aguinaldo issued the Philippine Declaration of Independence on June 12.

Neither Spain nor the U.S. recognized the declaration, however, and following a decisive naval victory over the Spanish in the Battle of Manila Bay, U.S. officials secretly negotiated a Spanish surrender to the American forces without consulting the Filipino revolutionaries. After staging a mock battle that the Spanish agreed to lose, American soldiers occupied Manila, prevented any Filipino forces from entering the city, and issued a proclamation claiming U.S. sovereignty over the islands.

Angered by the Americans’ betrayal, Aguinaldo and the Filipino revolutionary forces made it known that they planned to resist the U.S. occupation. An American sentry shot and killed two reportedly unarmed Filipino soldiers in the winter of 1899, triggering a war that would last for the next three years and lead to the deaths of more than 50,000 Filipino soldiers and civilians. Another 200,000 civilians died in a cholera epidemic that broke out near the end of the war.

American officials would directly rule the Philippines until after World War II, when the Treaty of Manila (1946) officially recognized the islands’ independence. Despite their fraught historical relationship, however, ties between the U.S. and the Philippines remain strong today due to a long tradition of immigration to the U.S. Filipinos were considered U.S. citizens until 1946 and avoided many of the immigration quotas passed during the early part of the 20th century. Many Filipinos also came to the U.S. after joining the U.S. armed forces or marrying American servicemen who were stationed on the islands during WWII. The Migration Policy Institute reports that as of 2013, the Filipino immigrant community in the U.S. was 1,844,000 members strong.

Tagalog is the language of the people native to the central part of the island of Luzon in the Philippines, and is spoken by 90 million people worldwide. Almost 90% of the 1.8 million Filipinos in the U.S. speak Tagalog, making it the third most widely spoken language in the United States. Tagalog is an Austronesian language, influenced by Spanish and English. The language has eight dialects: Bataan, Batangas, Bulacan, Lubang, Manila, Marinduque, Tanay-Paete, and Tayabas-Quezon. Some notable Filipino Americans include:

  • Singer Bruno Mars.

    Singer Bruno Mars

  • Actress Vanessa Hudgens
  • Snapchat co-founder Bobby Murphy
  • Journalist and former “All Things Considered” anchor Emil Guillermo
  • Former “Glee” star Darren Criss
  • Journalist and author Alex Tizon
  • “Let It Go” composer Robert Lopez
  • Actor and comedian Rob Schneider
  • Flickr and Hunch co-founder Caterina Fake
  • Miss World 2013 winner Megan Young
  • “Johnny Bravo” creator Van Partible 
  • Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett
  • Alice in Chains bassist Mike Inez
  • Actress Vanessa HudgensSpanish pop music singer-songwriter Enrique Iglesias
  • Pussycat Dolls lead singer Nicole Scherzinger
  • Rapper Danny Brown
  • Singer and multi-instrumentalist Chaz Bundick (of Toro y Moi)
  • YouTuber Anthony Padilla

This  article covered the history of some of the U.S.’s most widely spoken non-English languages, but there’s much more to learn about  languages in the U.S. and the communities that speak them. If you’re interested in more information about foreign languages in the U.S. or about how to work with speakers of these languages, be sure to reach out to Bromberg.

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