Why does New York stand out as the ultimate immigrant city? One of the most compelling reasons is that the city is one of the most linguistically diverse in the world. Over 200 languages from almost every continent are spoken by NYC residents across the five boroughs, from Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic to Fulani, Mixteco, Quechua, Garifuna, and Wolof.
On February 21, International Mother Language Day, we celebrate the critical role of all languages globally and in New York City. The holiday commemorates the efforts of Bengali activists to protect their right to speak Bangla, their native language. As they recognized, languages are inextricably tied to our cultures, histories and identities. When you fight to protect one community’s language rights, you are also fighting for all communities’ rights, safety and sense of belonging.
However, hundreds of languages — including the languages of New York’s indigenous communities, displaced by settler colonialism — are currently in danger of extinction. We must continue the effort to preserve them with support from our communities, advocates and local governments. In New York, we recognize the critical value of the many languages spoken in our city and affirm our commitment to elevating, preserving and protecting them. In doing so, we signal that our city is a safe, welcome place for New Yorkers of all backgrounds and identities.
The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs has worked with sister agencies to implement Local Law 30, one of the nation’s strongest measures for language access. It requires city agencies to provide language access services, including translations of commonly distributed documents into 10 citywide languages, and to develop implementation plans to continue expanding language access. Among other requirements, city agencies must also provide telephonic interpretation in at least 100 languages and provide multilingual signage about the availability of free interpretation services. In addition, IDNYC, the city’s free identification program for all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status, provides the ability for cardholders to include two preferred languages on their card. This is important for New Yorkers who speak multiple languages from their country of origin. It also helps provide a pride in identity and protection for those who speak languages other than English.
As we have experienced over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, ensuring widespread availability of critical information and resources in multiple languages to reach all New Yorkers has never been more vital. We have improved our website accessibility and published information in languages beyond the 10 languages required by Local Law 30. MOIA also translated critical materials, such as our multilingual guide to city services during the Covid-19 pandemic, into additional languages such as Portuguese, Nepali and Yiddish. You can find these guides at nyc.gov/immigrants/coronavirus. As with MOIA’s work supporting the city’s Covid-19 testing program, we are committed to working with our agency partners to support the City’s Vaccine for All effort, especially in addressing inequities in New Yorkers’ access to information in the languages they speak, and expanded education and outreach to our communities most impacted by the pandemic. This includes advising agencies on interpretation at virtual events, how to make their websites more accessible, and integrating language access into Covid-19 recovery planning efforts.
In addition, we have prioritized language access in our work leading Cities for Action, a coalition of nearly 200 cities and localities across the nation advocating for more inclusive and pro-immigrant federal policies. Last month, C4A released a list of recommendations for the Biden administration and Congress to implement in order to better support our communities. Central to our recommendations was increased investment, coordination and support for multilingual services and information in all levels of government. This step is imperative to reverse the last four years of federal policies and neglect that shamed multilingual New Yorkers and asserted an ahistorical, narrow vision of what it means to be an American. Ultimately, we recognize that language access is not only imperative to our immigrant communities’ success, empowerment and safety, but it is also a civil right. You can find more information about C4A’s recommendations at citiesforaction.us/vision.
Finally, alongside our language access advocacy, we continue to support English language learning through our WeSpeak NYC program, which provides free online conversation classes for intermediate English language learners. Through this effort, we value linguistic diversity and honor bilingual education to further support our immigrant communities. New Yorkers can sign up for a class and learn more at www.wespeaknyc.cityofnewyork.us/wsnyc-online-classes.
As we acknowledge and safeguard the critical value of languages this International Mother Language Day, let us also appreciate the enduring promise of our city: No matter where you are from or what language you speak, New York City is your home.
Bitta Mostofi is Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.