My wife brought me the Provider Directory (online search form here) sent us by Health New England, open to the index by languages, which she knew would interest me. (You can consult the “Languages Spoken” pull-down menu on the search form linked above.) I was impressed by the fact that there were doctors listed under such unexpected languages as Armenian, Cebuano, Kannada, and Yoruba, and pleased to see there were two listed as being able to use Sign Language (presumably ASL). Then I started noticing some strange entries. “Ukraine” for Ukrainian was a minor glitch, but what were “Pakistani” and “Indian” supposed to mean? (Ethnologue lists 69 languages for Pakistan, 387 for India.) There were separate entries for “Persian” and “Farsi,” and not just for cross-referencing convenience, either: there were five doctors listed under the latter and only one (a different one) under the former. But the worst was “Hebrew (Yiddish).” What the…? Not only are those completely different languages, it’s unlikely that many doctors are competent in both—certainly here in New England. I suspect most of those listed speak Hebrew, with a few having picked up Yiddish either as mamaloshen at home or as an elective in college; in any case, lumping them together seems completely insane. (Also, I can’t help but wonder how many patients still arrive at the doctor’s expecting to describe their symptoms in Yiddish.)

Incidentally, I turned up this list of Yiddish sites, including blogs; I am glad to learn that “The number of sites featuring Yiddish grows daily and sorting through them all takes time and patience.” (Via The Head Heeb.)


  1. Yeah, Aetna’s is the same. I think they just add whatever people write down

  2. That kind of makes sense, but I wonder why someone would be so vague about their own language? Maybe it’s to seem more encouraging to potential customers. “‘Indian’? Well, I’m from India… I guess we’ll probably be able to communicate somehow…”

  3. I wonder if “Indian” is some sort of semi-literal translation of “Hindi.” Cf. how most Yiddish speakers seem to prefer t call the language “Jewish.”

  4. Armenian isn’t surprising. There’s a pretty big Armenian-speaking community in Watertown, and a couple of neighborhoods where there are store signs in Armenian.

  5. I have a newspaper clipping, some ten years old. A (semi-?)governmental agency is asking for foreign aid workers to be employed in India. On their wish list, they stated in Swedish in my translation that “It is particularily merituous if candidates know the Indian language”.

  6. Reading this, I began to wonder how many truly multi-lingual world cities there are, i.e. cities where a large number of world languages are spoken, and where you can be sure that several dozen people with different first languages are living and working within (perhaps) a mile of you.
    Paris, London, New York are obviously on that list but how many others would qualify. Cities such as Sydney and Toronto I would dismiss as being too small; cities such as Beijing I would categorise as too monoglot (and yes, this is just a parlour game with no particular significance).
    Anyway, here’s a website that has tried to categorize the languages spoken by London schoolchildren as their or their parents’ first language. I think that it’s quite interesting – scroll to the bottom of the page for the full list and click on any of the names.

  7. I wouldn’t dismiss cities like Toronto and Sydney out of hand like that. I’ve never been to Sydney, but Toronto is one of the most polyglot cities of its size I’ve ever been to. I’ve been to shops in Toronto where there were a dozen different languages spoken within 20 feet of me, let alone a mile.
    Size has little to do with it. Tokyo and Seoul are almost completely monoglot, and much smaller cities can have thriving linguistic communities.

  8. About the use of Jewish for Yiddish. My grandmother, the youngest chiid of Eastern European immigrant Jewish parents, used to say that. In Yiddish, the name of the language means the same thing as Jewish as an adjetive. Yet in English, we make the distinction between the language (Yiddish) and its speakers (Jewish people). When she said that, it was one of the only times she betrayed who she was, not the New York sophisticate, but a product of the lower east side Jewish slums of the turn of the century. She was not an immigrant trying to hold onto her culture, but to dump it at the earliest convenience.

  9. Michael Farris says:

    Berlin is a very multilingual city and I assume Moscow is too (of a different kind).
    Budapest seems to have elements of multingual cityhood and Warsaw may be headed there as well (at a slower pace).

  10. I don’t know from Sydney, but Melbourne is hugely multilingual, especially in particular suburbs where rent is cheaper and immigrants tend to start out. I’ve heard that 4/10 of Melbourne’s residents were born outside Australia. Of course that’d include a lot of UK folks, but still…
    Tokyo is not visibly multicultural, but it’s still full of people from all over the world trying to make money. I bet that at any given point in central Tokyo there are at least a couple dozen people within a mile radius whose native language is something other than Japanese.

  11. Toronto is extraordinarily multilingual – Canada has among the largest percentages of foreign-born residents, and Toronto is the overwhelming destination for those immigrants. Montreal is also an immigrant destination, but Quebec selects its own immigrants, and you need to speak French to get through the process, so nearly everyone arriving in Montreal has some command of the French language. In the latest stats released by the Quebec government, 94% of Quebec residents could speak French, so, while it’s not surprising to hear a foreign language there, French is very much prevalent.

  12. I agree that all of these cities are multilingual – but I don’t think that they are sufficiently large to have as numerous different language groups as the 3 cities I mentioned above (NY, L and P). Since by definition larger cities are bigger than smaller ones, that’s probably self-defining. I’m just saying that you can have: category (A) world cities with a population over 5 million that are definitely multilingual, i.e. world cities such as the three above, (B) cities that are over 5 million that are not multilingual to any significant extent (Beijing, Tokyo, Mexico City(?), and (C) cities that are multi-lingual but have a population of less than (say) 5 million, so have a a smaller language base (Sydney, Toronto). And I was wondering what other cities would fall into Category A.
    Didn’t mean to get so far off the topic and start a dispute – I’ll get my coat.

  13. For Paris to be more than 5 million, one must count not just the city but the whole Ile de France, right? But then doesn’t GTA come close or edge over, too? Paris is a lot denser; Toronto is North American suburban sprawl. Maybe that is key to “sufficiently large”: not just a streetcorner where you can hear ten languages but many such streetcorners.
    Lagos and Mumbai must each attract people from a linguistically diverse area, but not so much “world languages”.
    São Paolo seems like it should qualify cleanly.

  14. Moscow — I mean the City of Moscow proper — has at least nine million residents (probably over 10), many coming from former USSR republics other than Russia. (It is said that the Moscow Azeri community is one million strong.) Accordingly, one can hear languages from all these countries as well as minority languages of Russia proper.

  15. My wife teaches in a smallish public grade school in Oakland, California. A few years back she informed me that there were 20 different native languages spoken by students at her school. It’s a neighborhood split between African-Americans, Latinos and Southeast Asians (including Cantonese,) but with a good sprinkling of people speaking Amharic and Serbian and Hausa and Arabic. Not a few Russians too.
    I think for purposes of the count that some more or less mutually unintelligible dialects from around Guangzhou were all counted as Cantonese.

  16. In my home town Göteborg, the second largest in Sweden, 75 home languages/mother tongues are taught in public primary schools, of course at no extra cost for families. To arrive at that number, Bosnian/Croat/Serbian are counted as one language, making the group number two after Arabic. (#3 is Persian.)
    In Stockholm, single schools may encompass 30-50 home languages. One Göteborg school mentions a class of 19 pupils with 14 home languages.
    A community owned housing company here offers 30 cable TV channels in 17 languages at a very affordable price.
    After a tragic fire in a disco, the court proceedings were interpreted into 13 languages.
    Things have changed. In grade 3, I had a classmate with a very obvious Estonian name. At 10, I had only lived in the Göteborg area for some 6 years, and I felt that I was more foreign than him (he had the local accent, and mine was as neutral as could be).

Speak Your Mind