The Multilingual Midwest

On Wednesday, I attended a lovely Smartling dinner in Chicago, where participants joined in on a discussion of how translation connects the world. In a major city like Chicago, it’s easy to see translation wherever we look. When prompted to identify places in Chicago where translation could be found, the group quickly pointed out that translation is used in local hospitals, courts, businesses, tourism, and even settings like sports, politics, and entertainment.

Attendees also correctly guessed the percentage of people in Cook County who speak a language other than English at home – one in every 3 people, according to the latest data from the US Census. This group of Chicago residents could also easily guess the top languages used in their local area – like Spanish, Polish, Chinese, and Tagalog.

Our dinner guests were primarily people who deal with international issues in their daily work. Most had studied other languages, had lived abroad, or came from another country originally. In a city as large as Chicago, with extensive linguistic diversity within its population, it isn’t exactly surprising to encounter such a mix of globally-minded people.

Without a doubt, Chicago is a beacon of globalism in the Midwest. However, there’s a lot more to the Midwest’s multilingualism than just the Windy City. Consider these facts:

  • Wisconsin is home to a sizeable Hmong population of 33,791 people in 2000, with seven counties reporting populations of more than 2,000 Hmong.
  • Minnesota has a very large Somali community. In 2006, Somalis in Minnesota owned 600 businesses and accounted for up to $394 million in purchasing power.
  • In Michigan, the city of Dearborn has a large population of Arab-Americans – this group makes up 40% of residents, and nearly one in every three people (29.3%) speak Arabic.

In fact, while it might surprise you, two of the fastest-growing Hispanic markets in the United States are Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, and Kansas City, Missouri.

Growing up in a small town in the Illinois countryside, it was rare for me to hear languages other than English spoken. Fast forward a few decades, and in many parts of the rural Midwest, this is no longer the case. It’s no longer just major cities that form part of America’s linguistic melting pot. In a global age like the one we’re living in today, people in communities large and small can hail from anywhere.

The point? The world is a big place, and when we talk about translation connecting our entire global population, it can be somewhat hard to envision. It’s easier to spot the thread of translation that connects communities and people when we look right in our own backyard – and increasingly, we’ll find translation there, no matter where we happen to be.