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Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood? And What Languages Do They Speak?

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It's almost noon, which, on a typical day, means that I've already communicated with people in at least a dozen countries. Some of those countries, such as India and Sweden, are places where I have co-workers, and in the others I have clients. I step into the hallway, but the scene is perhaps even more global, as I hear my colleagues trading phrases in French, German, Italian and Spanish. Several signs on the office doors are written in Chinese. As I leave the office, I pass an upside-down world map (with Australia on top).

I walk down the block with Gregory, my co-worker, to pick up lunch at a nearby Iraqi restaurant, where we're greeted with hot tea served in small gold-rimmed glasses with saucers. Gregory asks the owner how to say "tea" in Arabic. After the owner tells him the word, Gregory remarks that it sounds similar to the word for tea in Russian. The owner's face brightens: he's Iraqi but speaks fluent Russian. The two begin having a lively conversation in the shared foreign tongue.

Meanwhile, my ear perks up as I recognize the singer of the music playing in the restaurant. I notice the woman behind the counter singing along and ask, "Is that Sezen Aksu?" She looks surprised. "Yes, you know Turkish music?" I respond with a smile and a few words of Turkish.

As we collect our food and walk back to our building, we pass a Brazilian bakery, a group of women speaking Vietnamese, and the window of a chiropractor's office that promotes its services in Spanish as well as English. Around the corner, a church offers services in Khmer and Portuguese. All this within a few blocks of our office.

No, we don't work for the United Nations. And no, we're not in Geneva, Paris or London. We're based in downtown Lowell, Mass. Located on the outskirts of Boston, Lowell has around 100,000 people, making it the fourth largest city in Massachusetts but by no means a metropolis.

Its size may be deceiving, for Lowell has a multilingual and global history. Its canals and factories were built in the early 1800s mostly by immigrants from Ireland. Wave after wave of immigrants came throughout the century that followed -- from French Canada, Germany, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, Sweden and various parts of Eastern Europe. By the year 1900, nearly half of the people living in Lowell had been born in other countries.

Immigrants continued settling in Lowell, with another large wave arriving in the 1970s from Cambodia in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide. As of the 2000 Census, 22 percent of Lowell's population was foreign-born (the national average throughout the U.S. is 11 percent). In addition to Cambodia, other countries with large communities in Lowell include Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, India, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

How common is it to encounter a dozen foreign tongues and other nations before lunch? As someone who researches global business and language services for a living, I'll acknowledge that the number of languages and nationalities represented in my workday is higher than most. Moreover, Lowell's population is admittedly more culturally and linguistically diverse than many parts of the nation, including nearby Boston.

But my situation really isn't all that unique. According to the American Community Survey, 19.6 percent of individuals over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home. Even in places like Nebraska, 9.2 percent of the population speaks a non-English language at home. It isn't uncommon to find a speaker of Somali in Maine or Amharic in Minnesota. And, with nearly a quarter of American small- and medium-sized businesses doing business in other countries, language is an extremely valuable resource.

Back in the 1970s, a popular song on "Sesame Street" always asked, "Who are the people in your neighborhood?" prodding children to think about the different jobs that people do and how they contributed to society at a local level. In an age when children are ever more likely to compete in a global and multilingual marketplace, perhaps an updated version of the song should teach them to ask:

Oh, what are the languages in your neighborhood,
In your neighborhood,
In your neighborhood?
Say, what are the languages in your neighborhood,
The languages you speak each day?

Which languages are spoken in your neighborhood? If you live in the United States, click here to find out.