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Farewell to the Italian Language? Italians in the U.S. Speak it “poco”

The Center for Immigration Studies report finds Italian experienced the greatest drop of foreign languages spoken at home

Entrance of Arthur Avenue, Bronx's Little Italy (Photo VNY / D.M.)

A decrease of 44% in the number of people speaking Italian at home as per the recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. Italian is the language that has, since the start of the new millennium, suffered the greatest loss of all the foreign languages spoken at home

Food and wine, culture, Made in Italy make all things Italian an American obsession. Additionally, in the U.S., at least 25 million people are of Italian descent, as estimated by the two key Italian American organizations. Nevertheless, this passion does not correspond to the linguistic reality of Italian in the States.

According to a study published recently by the Center for Immigration Studies, the Italian language in the States continues to experience a drastic decline and not only in its academic study, as we’ve already reported here the disconcerting drop in university enrollments. Now the statistics show that it is affecting us closer to home, literally at home.

A 44% decrease in the number of people speaking Italian at home was reported in the most recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. Italian is the language that has, since the start of the new millennium, suffered the greatest loss of all the foreign languages spoken at home (only the German language comes remotely close, at -34%).

Residents that spoke in Italian at home in the 2000 decennial census were 1,0008,370; in 2010 that number fell to 725,223 and this year, even less: Italian is spoken at home by only 567.270.

Yet the same study proclaims that in the U.S. there is a marked increase of foreign languages spoken at home (up by 29%) and that in major American cities foreign languages are significantly present at home: in New York and Houston 49% of households, in Los Angeles 59%,  in Chicago, 36%; and in Phoenix 38%.

Let’s consider this further to understand the possible reasons why la bella lingua has suffered so.

First, scholars confirm that in communities where immigrant languages are spoken, by the third generation the immigrant’s native language is lost. In the case of Italian, the prevalent use of Italian (or Italian languages/dialects) at home generally ends with the death of the immigrant.

Next, migration from Italy is not as it used to be. Italians who have left over the last 20 years take advantage of European mobility, with the U.K. as the preferred immigration destination thanks to the benefits of remaining in the European Union. We wonder if, after Brexit, there might be a renewed influx of Italians who, seeking an English-speaking experience, will arrive to the U.S. with work and/or student visas.

As for the Italians (university graduates, professionals, those who are part of the “brain drain”) who choose the States, the top immigration destination outside of Europe over these last decades and which is discussed here , they belong to a new phenomenon of Italian migration: temporary relocation by so-called soujourners. Not only are there fewer expats who choose America as their destination than in the past, but there are even fewer who wish (or are able) to settle here.

Among the varying factors that also contribute to the loss of the use of Italian at home include new immigration patterns in the U.S. and the corresponding immigrant languages. As reported in the CIS report, Telugu has experienced incredible growth as a language spoken in American homes. Telugu is one of the 22 officially recognized languages of India.

Chicken, egg, or vicious cycle? At home, Italian is seldom spoken thus there is a drop in students enrolling in university courses. There are fewer students enrolling in Italian therefore at home there is less Italian spoken. Recalling the data for foreign language enrollments in American universities, we are reminded that Italian experienced the sharpest decline (20%) of the top foreign languages studied. Let’s compare these languages and the new data from the recent census of foreign languages spoken at home. Quite a negative trend here too for Italian.

Top foreign languages studied in US universities as spoken at home. Trends from 2000 to 2017

The data doesn’t lie: is it possible that la bella lingua is slated for extinction in America? Or, and perhaps even worse, might we find it in the very near future lumped into the residual category “other languages”?

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