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United States of America (USA) - Speaking the Language


The population of the US speaks or signs approximately 430 known languages, including 176 indigenous languages and American sign language. Some state and territorial authorities have adopted English as an official language; some have adopted English and other local languages; some have adopted a policy of bilingualism; but most states have not asserted an official language, and at a federal level there is no official language recognised for the country.

The most common language used in the US is American English, which dominates the entire education system, justice system, media, workplaces and signage systems. According to the American Community Survey 2011, English is spoken at home by the largest number of residents over the age of 5, followed by Spanish, variants of Chinese, French and Philippine language Tagalog. Vietnamese, Korean, variants of German, Arabic and Russian are also each spoken at home by about a million residents.

There are differences between American English and British English though these rarely cause a problem in terms of communication and may only be an issue for academic precision:

• Vocabulary - lift/elevator, pushchair/buggy, movie theatre/cinema
• Collective Nouns - always singular in American English ‘The team is playing tonight’, in British English they can be singular or plural ‘The team are playing tonight’
• Auxiliary verbs - American English ‘Should we go now?’ is less formal than British English ‘Shall we go now?’
• Past Tense - American English uses ‘gotten’; this is never correctly used in British English. American English past verbs usually end in -ed ‘learned’; British English past verbs usually end with a -t ‘leant’, although there are a few important exceptions such as the historic execution term ‘hanged’.

Some Americans can struggle to understand the pronunciation of English speakers from other countries who do not have a cut-glass accent. Recent arrivals from South Africa, Antipodean areas or Northern England may encounter confusion over their origins and what they are saying. When speaking to someone for the first time, consciously slow down your speech, look directly at the person you are speaking to, and say each word as clearly as possible.

The movie industry means American English is easily understood by non-US English speakers, but this is not a two-way process. Similarly, accents in the movie industry rarely vary from a common standard, yet accents and colloquialisms across the US vary enormously and will be unfamiliar to anyone outside the area.

The second most widely spoken language in the US is Spanish, due to its proximity to Spanish speaking countries of South America. It is thought the number of Spanish speakers in the US is the fifth largest in the world, following Mexico, Spain, Columbia and Argentina. Some researchers assert the placement should be second, but this is not the generally accepted and recognised position. About 13% of the US population are Spanish speakers.

Significant portions of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Texas, Colorado and Wyoming were once part of neighbouring Mexico, but in various episodes from 1848 onwards become incorporated into the US following battles, encroachment by US settlers, and treaties. Today the wealth of the US and poverty of the general population in Mexico continues to draw in significant numbers of migrant workers from Mexico, some of whom join the millions who have entered the country illegally over the past few decades. Recent estimates suggest 11.4 million people born in Mexico now reside in the US, with a further 22.3 million who were born in the US but identify themselves as Hispanics of Mexican origin.

Cuba is only 90 miles from the US town of Key West, Florida. Cuban migration to the US started in 1565 with the creation of St Augustine, Florida, by hundreds of soldiers with their accompanying families under the leadership of Pedro Menendez de Aviles. More recently, the political dominance of Fidel Castro in Cuba and the opportunity for wealth creation in the US means that almost a million people born in Cuba now live in the US.

Nearly all the migrants from Mexico and Cuba will speak Spanish as their first language; the second generation will usually speak American English as their first language and only about half will learn to speak Spanish.

Spanish is currently the most widely taught second language in the US. Mass media (such as Univision, Telemundo and Aztec America) and more than 500 newspaper titles provide information and entertainment to their Spanish speaking audiences. Some mainstream American retailers now offer customer services in English and Spanish. The state government in New Mexico offers services and documents in English and Spanish.

The Spanish speaking immigrant community has had a massive impact in terms of food and drink, with both Mexican and Cuban food being popular and widespread amongst the US population generally. Spanish-speaking migrants have been the backbone of many industries supporting the business, health, comfort and leisure of other ethnic groups in the US. Whilst many families will move and integrate in their new location, many communities prefer to live amongst family and friends who tend to be clustered in particular southern states. Yet suggestions that government officials in certain states should learn Spanish, even if it is to work in life threatening situations where basic Spanish could make the key difference to the outcome, there is a strong and widespread reaction against it from those who believe all residents in the US should be fluent English speakers.

The largest single ethnic group in the US are people of German ancestry, including those living in the Amish communities. However, the German language is the eighth most commonly spoken language in the US because less than 4% of the population speaks it. Italian, Polish, French and Russian are also spoken by small communities.

Native American languages are rarely spoken outside of reservations, and the number of fluent speakers is decreasing.

In Hawaii, the state sanctioned official languages are Hawaiian and English, while in Louisiana the state government offers documents and services in French and English.

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act has asserted that bilingual voting papers should be available in specific counties and jurisdictions based on the extent to which languages other than English are spoken in some areas. These include Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Japanese, Korean and Chinese (notably Cantonese, Taishanese and Standard Mandarin). The principle on which Section 203 relies is that the United States is a diverse land with a government selected by the votes of its citizens, and that the language a citizen speaks can affect participation. The cost and principle of bilingual provision in elections is unpopular with certain groups and segments of the media.

There are a number of global sign languages but the one most commonly used in the US is American Sign Language.

If you want to teach English in the US, there are States with particularly high levels of immigration where the need for English teachers will be greatest. You must normally have a degree and any additional training as determined by the specific state and by the type of institution you wish to teach in. Very often, the most accessible positions to begin with are available part time or on a supply basis, which causes difficulties in meeting the living costs. However, a more immediate problem is that prospective employers need to provide evidence for your employment Petition to show a shortage of qualified teachers available at the average rate of the area, and so being granted permission to enter the US for work may prove difficult. Higher qualifications and greater experience in the field will be relevant to your Visa application.

Alternatively, investigate cultural exchange programmes such as VIF, which offers places in various schools and programmes across North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

Some TEFL courses in the US will offer post-course job placement services, but be aware that the Visas are issued by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, not by the schools.

Those who have obtained English teaching roles in the US frequently report their preference to teach foreigners rather than US students. North American cultural attitudes promote individuality and group discussion, while Mexican and many other cultures have hierarchical views of education. Dress for this work should be business casual.


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