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Travel Guide > North America > USA

USA Languages

  
 
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Almost all Americans speak English. They generally use a standard accent (native to the Midwest), popularized in the 20th century by radio, TV and movies. In many areas, especially the South and Texas, in New England, in New York City, and in the upper Midwest, you'll find distinctive regional accents and dialects. Nowhere should this pose any problem to a visitor, as Americans often admire foreign accents and most will approximate the standard accent to help you understand them, or try to speak your language if they can. You may occasionally need to repeat yourself in order to be understood. Some words with short vowel sounds can be hard for some Americans to understand, and without necessarily imitating an American accent it can help to lengthen them for understanding. If the clerk at the travelers' assistance desk doesn't understand you when you say "locker," try lah-ker. If you have difficulty ordering the "salad" at Wendy's, try sah-lid.

Visitors are generally expected to speak and understand English. Many Americans are familiar with Spanish, or French, but few are fluent in languages other than English, unless they are from immigrant communities. Even popular tourist sites may have signs only in English, or perhaps one or two other languages.

Spanish is the primary second language in many parts of the U.S. such as California, the Southwest, Texas, Florida, Chicago Metropolitan Area, and the New York Metropolitan Area. Spanish is also the first language of the U.S. territory Puerto Rico as well as a large minority of residents, mostly immigrants from Mexico or Latin America. The United States has the fifth-largest Spanish speaking population in the world. Although it's rare to be in areas where no one speaks English, a good handle on Spanish can make communications easier in some areas.

French is the primary second language in rural areas near the border with Quebec, in some areas of Louisiana, and by immigrants from West Africa. Haitian immigrants primarily speak Haitian Creole, a separate language derived from French, as their second language, although a substantial number also speak French. Hawaiian is the native language of Hawaii, and in the various Chinatowns in major cities, Cantonese and Mandarin are common. Smaller immigrant groups also sometimes form their own pockets of shared language, including Russian, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese, and others. Chicago, for instance, is the city with the second largest ethnic Polish population in the world, behind Warsaw. The Amish, who have lived in Pennsylvania and Ohio for generations, speak a dialect of German. Some Native Americans speak their respective native languages, especially on reservations in the west.

The dominant sign language in the U.S. is American Sign Language, or ASL. When events are interpreted, they will be interpreted in ASL. Users of French Sign Language and other related languages may find ASL intelligible, as they share much vocabulary, but users of British Sign Language or Auslan will not. Closed-captioning on television is widespread, but far from ubiquitous. Many theaters offer FM loops or other assistive listening devices, but captioning and interpreters are rarer.

For the blind, many signs and displays include Braille transcriptions of the printed English. Larger restaurant chains, museums, and parks may offer Braille menus and guidebooks, but you'll likely have to ask for one.





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