• Preston Fidler

Languages in Cities

Languages in cities seem to take on a life of their own. The complex dynamics of multiple ethnicities and languages is mind-blowing. Sometimes it's hard to even to know how to begin to share gospel with our lost neighbors when we're not even sure which languages, dialects, or repertoires of speech they use with each other in different contexts. The world is moving to cities, and languages as we know them are changing.


I thought it might be a good idea to first hear from those who are actually in the trenches trying to learn minority languages in cities. Here's what they say:


"Minority" languages in cities are so different from the language in textbooks, or even the colloquial written or audio resources.

Many minority-language speakers will revert to respond in the majority language, even if you speak with them in their mother tongue.

It did not make sense to anyone why someone would want to learn the minority language! All business is conducted in the majority language.

Minority language speakers living in my city always mix it with the majority language.

There is a significant difference between what is spoken on the street and what you find in books.

There's a much bigger difference in the minority than in the majority languages between what you see in books and what is spoken.


The majority of the population cannot read what is written in their mother tongue. If they are literate, they read the majority language.

The heart language is unwritten and is spoken in the streets and at home. The "foreign" languages (the trade language and the national language) have a rich vocabulary compared to the heart language when it comes to matters of deep truth. So do we use what the local language has, use a borrowed word, and if so, which from which language?  National language speakers would say use their words, while trade language speakers would say use their words, and reasons for this often don't make sense; perhaps they just don't like the other language. It is a tricky thing, language.


Second and third generation minorities often mix languages in the same sentence. Inter-cultural marriages where spouses prefer different languages is not uncommon. OOOHHH my head hurts! :-)


Your head may be hurting too as you consider learning a minority language in your new city :) Let's unpack this a bit more. What's actually happening with languages in cities? And why is it so complicated?


In the past few hundred years the rise of nation-states led to the idea of language entities often tied to nations, that is, what we often think of as "languages." For example, we know that in Sweden they speak Swedish. In Germany, German. Along with national language identity came increased literacy, standardization, schools, textbooks, etc. Formal language education as we know it today actually wasn't even around until the mid 1800s.

This phenomenon is somewhat unique in history (and somewhat misleading) in that previous to this time (as well as during this time) most languages were used in fairly small areas due to limited travel. So, in your hometown you understood 100% of what people said, maybe 90% in the neighboring town, 80% in a more distant town, and so on. Some languages were obviously more dominant than others due to size and influence.

This is called a speech continuum and it represents how most languages have worked throughout history, with the exception of empires, trade routes, and nation states. The rise of globalization, urbanization, migration, and telecommunications means we are returning to the dynamic of this speech continuum in global cities. People in cities so often mix languages in incredibly diverse and complex ways. The urban speech continuum may mean language schools and textbooks are increasingly unreliable sources of language for those of us trying to learn them.

For multilinguals, communication is not just about the idea being conveyed – much of the message is the choice among the many ways of speaking at my disposal, and what that choice says about me, says about you, and says about the idea I am conveying. Thor Sawin


Example: People from locations A, D, L, and K come to live in city X and mix languages through their communication with each other in incredibly diverse, complex, yet interpersonally meaningful ways.

Topics to discuss:

1. How is the social situation in your city defined by language use?

  • Varieties (What dialects or repertoires of speech are used?)

  • Usage (Where and how are they used?)

  • Mixing (How are they mixed with other languages?)

  • Generations (Who speaks what depending on age or generation?)

  • Gender (Who speaks what depending on gender?)

  • Education (Who speaks what depending on level/kind of education?)

  • Commerce (Who speaks what depending on business?)

  • Resilience (How "resilient" is the language because of ethnic identity?)

2. How difficult is the language (or dialect, or repertoire)?

  • Technical difficulty

  • Usage or access to the language

  • Availability of resources

3. What are your goals?

  • What do you need? (e.g. high proficiency in the trade language + 100 key phrases in the minority language)

  • What resources will help you get what you need? (e.g. language partners)

  • What's been tried so far? (failures, successes)

  • What's can you commit to? (weekly schedule, for how long?)


Learning a minority language in a city is a huge challenge. Here are a few more comments from those trying to learn right along with you:

There is so much variation in the minority language mixed with the majority language that I end up having to learn 2-3 words for the same thing, or 2-3 ways to say the same thing. Plus, I have to know when and how to use these variations.

The dynamic of usage keep changing. Many times, I have been so excited to learn a new word/phrase only to be met with a blank stare when I use it followed by… “Oh, that’s an old word/phrase…a lot of us don’t really say that.”

The language is “slippery." It just seems to be exceptionally hard to really “get down.” Learning 3 possible ways of saying a word or phrase is rather daunting to even the most dedicated of language learners!


I am discovering the language of every minority village outside of the city sounds like it has its own accent and the differences between regional dialects (even villages 2 hours apart) are significant enough that they are debatably separate languages.

98% of my neighbors speak good (enough) majority language so communication is rarely a problem. (Well, that's certainly an overstatement in general but as it relates to having an understood common language, I think it holds.) I speak probably 50 words of the minority language - enough to pique interest with people before switching to the majority language.

Urban minorities speak far more majority language in daily life than non-urban minorities. And then there are folks who move into the city from the village. You never know who you are going to meet. The biggest challenge is trying to learn both languages. You have to reach a certain level in one language before you can really identify how much the languages are mixed in daily speech, and that can affect how and when you start learning the other language. We use the majority language. But speaking some minority language goes so far with people!

When I lived outside the city I could just go to the market (or honestly just walk outside because of where I lived) and immediately start practicing language if I did not have a prior plan, but now I have to be intentional about calling and meeting up with individuals. That takes more effort and more commitment on my part. And when I have certain weeks where it seems that I can’t get a meeting with someone, my community practice hours suffer and I have to show grace for myself.  It’s happened and it’s going to happen!

While it is a slower journey, it is possible and very much worth it to continue to strive for language even in a non-immersed context. And while there are so many who do speak English there are also so many who have very weak English. I always remind myself that we can have far reaching impact if we make the sacrifice now.


Knowing even just a little of a minority language can reframe everything you then say in the majority language. Greeting a neighbor in their heart or minority language saying something like, “My name is ______.  I speak just a little of your language.  It is a beautiful language.  I want to learn more. I am not good yet, so can we speak [majority language]?” is so different than coming right up to someone, greeting them in the majority language, and then continuing to speak to them in the majority language.