The Effects of Migration on Local Language

Language is never static—it grows and changes along with its environment and, most importantly, its speakers. With the global number of international migrants estimated at about 281 million (and growing) in 2020, it’s practically a guarantee that the movement of people across distances and borders will affect the way we speak. In other words, how does migration impact local languages?

Immigrant youth and language learning

When we consider the effects of migration on local languages, one trend stands out: the key role played by young immigrants. When moving to a new country, older immigrants may feel more pressure to assimilate to the dominant language. They may also seek out ethnic enclaves where it will be easier to preserve their native language and culture unchanged.

For their children, however, the opposite is often the case. As immigrants’ children enter local school systems—especially the diverse public-school systems that are characteristic of major cities—they encounter the new language both in formal classes and, more informally, from the mouths of their peers. Since language learning tends to come more easily when we’re young, this vibrant linguistic environment can produce new and exciting variations of local languages.

From slang to syntax

The introduction of new slang (and vocabulary in general) is one such variation. For example, waves of immigration from throughout Latin America have had an indelible impact on American Spanish, introducing phrases such as the exclamation “Qué vaina!” popular in Venezuelan slang. Words that we now consider standard in the American English lexicon—like the Yiddish “chutzpah” or “schmaltz”—first came to the U.S. on the tongues of the country’s historical immigrants.

But migration doesn’t just affect a handful of words or phrases. In fact, it can even lead to the formation of completely new dialects.

Take the case of Miami, where over six decades of Cuban immigration have actually changed the way English is spoken throughout the city. Spanish speakers in Miami have assimilated what are known as “calques”—words borrowed from a speaker’s native language into another language—into local parlance. For example, you might hear someone say in English that they are “making a party” instead of hosting one, a literal translation of the Spanish hacer una fiesta.

What is a multiethnolect?

In urban centers that are home to numerous immigrant communities, linguists have highlighted a phenomenon they call a multiethnolect: a new language variety influenced by multiple different languages. Often driven by youth culture, these ethnolects go far beyond slang. They often “correct” or alter confusing elements of the original local language, give birth to new grammatical constructions, and produce unique mixtures of sounds and pronunciations.

Here are a few examples of multiethnolects:

  • Kiezdeutsch: Kiezdeutsch is a German multiethnolect that developed in particularly diverse neighborhoods of Berlin, among young immigrants that adopted Turkish and Arabic words into spoken German.
  • Multicultural London English (MLE): Spoken by young, working-class Londoners in high-immigration areas, MLE is a dialect of London English that combines the traditional East End Cockney dialect with elements from various immigrant communities.
  • Norwegian ethnolect: Sometimes referred to (controversially) as “Kebabnorsk,” this language variant of Norwegian is especially popular in East Oslo. The dialect blends features of Arabic, Turkish, and Punjabi (among others) with standard Norwegian.

When translating local languages, professional translators immersed in the local culture know how to listen for the nuances of these dialects. But whether you’re a language expert or merely a casual tourist, you should keep your ears peeled the next time you’re strolling through a city—you may be listening to linguistic history in the making!

Image by Денис Марчук from Pixabay