San Francisco Chronicle
Report: 112 languages spoken in diverse region
Tyche Hendricks, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2005
Most residents of the San Francisco metropolitan area won’t be surprised
that the region is one of the most linguistically diverse in the country,
yet a new report based on U.S. Census data tallies a dizzying 112 languages
spoken in homes here, making it the fifth most linguistically varied metro
area in the nation.
In addition to the most frequently used languages — English, Spanish,
Chinese, Tagalog and Vietnamese — there are thousands of Bay Area residents
who speak Persian, Portuguese and Punjabi, and hundreds more who feel most
at home with Swahili, Yiddish and Navajo.
Under census classifications, the San Francisco metropolitan area includes
the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo.
The San Jose metropolitan area — the counties of Santa Clara and San Benito
— has 103 languages represented, putting it at ninth out of 195 regions
around the country.
San Francisco’s diversity is eclipsed only by that in the metropolitan
regions of Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and Chicago.
The report, derived from information in Census 2000, was produced by the
U.S. English Foundation, a Washington, D.C., group that seeks to make
English the official language in the United States.
“There’s always a lot of discussion that we’re an English and Spanish
country, but we wanted to show that we’re many more languages,” said Rob
Toonkel, a spokeswoman for the U.S. English Foundation. “It is a diverse
society from a language perspective and we have to make sure that everyone
can speak English, rather than separate people along linguistic lines.”
But many local experts in language acquisition say the emphasis of the U. S.
English Foundation — which is backing a bill in Congress, HR997, to make
English the country’s official language — is misguided.
“When they say ‘English first’ or ‘English only,’ it seems to put out the
argument that people are not learning English, but immigrants are learning
English more than ever,” said Debra Luna, an assistant professor of
education at San Francisco State University. “People are eager to learn
because they know it’s the doorway to better wages and a better standard of
Nonetheless “language is connected to identity, self-esteem, tradition and
family ties,” she said. “That’s why we as a (teacher) credentialing program
support language diversity and understanding that we’re living in a global
At the Institute for International Students at San Francisco City College,
two staff members say the region’s diversity only adds to its cultural
Thi Thi Ma, an English teacher with a master’s degree in applied linguistics
from UCLA, was born and raised in Vietnam, where she learned Vietnamese at
school and three Chinese dialects at home.
Michele Zimmerman, the institute’s activities director, was raised in
Germany by American parents. At her international school, she learned
German, English and French, then went on to add Italian and — after
marrying a man from Uruguay — Spanish.
“In Europe, there’s more emphasis on learning different languages,”
Zimmerman said. “I don’t see anything wrong with doing that here.”
Added Ma, “Being surrounded by languages really promotes cultural
Toonkel said her group is not against multilingualism but insists that
English must receive more emphasis or the U.S. risks losing its civic unity.
For starters, she said, government agencies should stop producing voter
registration forms and other materials in multiple languages.
“We want government to focus on a language policy that says our language is
English,” Toonkel said. “In an area that speaks 112 languages, unless you’re
going to provide information in 112 languages, you’re starting to leave
And she applauded laws such as California’s Proposition 227, a ballot
measure passed in 1998 that requires schools to do away with bilingual
education and channel English learners into mainstream English-only
Ron Unz, the author of Prop. 227, said that English is becoming the world’s
unofficial language and argued that his measure has been more effective at
promoting English proficiency than Proposition 63, a 1986 ballot measure
called the California English Language Amendment, had been.
“For almost 20 years, English has been the official language of California,
but that didn’t have anything to do with the schools teaching English,” he
said. “Prior to 227, a good fraction of students in school were not really
being taught that much English.”
But Patricia Gándara, a UC Davis professor of education, said that in
abolishing bilingual education, Prop. 227 dismantled an important tool in
helping immigrant students catch up with their peers.
“I’m in total agreement that all children here must learn English,” she
said. “What the research community is interested in is how do we provide
them the best opportunity to speak English and the best opportunity to make
it through school.”
Society ought to view the primary languages immigrant children bring to
school as resources, rather than liabilities, Gándara said. She added that
the U.S. English Foundation’s emphasis on the multiplicity of languages in a
place like San Francisco ignores the fact that in many cases, just a couple
of foreign tongues are dominant.
“We have a great diversity of languages in this country and in this state,
however it remains a fact that about 85 percent of those kids speak one
language: Spanish,” she said.
That means that in a place where Spanish is dominant, teachers can use it
effectively in the classroom, she said, just as they can use Armenian
effectively in a community where that language is prevalent. She added that
educators have other strategies to draw on when there are multiple languages
in one classroom.
But Toonkel insisted that for immigrants to succeed in America, English must
be the primary tool of teaching and communication.
E-mail Tyche Hendricks at [email protected]