NYC Subway Languages

My mom never let us take taxis growing up, much to my chagrin. Although there was one time when I was 7 that we were in dire need of a taxi during a big snowfall and the only one we could find was one of those pre-hipsters on a taxi bike, and riding through a snow-covered Washington Square Park was magical. When we lived in Manhattan when I was young, we either walked or took the subway. I think my interest in languages stems from the subway, so thank you, MTA. I like to think of New York City as a little world—at any given time, I’m going to go ahead and say that there is probably someone from almost every corner of the world somewhere in that city. With tourists and immigrants combined, how couldn’t there be? Mom would hear people speaking another language, and she would always prompt me to guess what they were speaking. She always has her ears peaked for a foreign language, and if its one can only recite a poem in, she’ll bust out her chops.

New York is one city in America that certainly isn’t monolingual—you get your choice of English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, French, Italian, German and even Hebrew on the metro card machines and signs in the subway cars. For a time, the only full sentence I could say in Spanish was, Tenga cuidado al subir y bajar del tren. Paso por la ensena, or something like that, which I memorized on my 45-minute commute one summer. Since NYC has ethnic enclaves in certain neighborhoods or boroughs, some trains will have more signs in certain languages and less in others. The 7 train, for example, which goes to Flushing, has almost everything available in Korean as well. Neighborhoods out near Coney Island have Russian readily available. I’ve noticed the same multilingualism in translation services at NYC pharamacies, from French Creole to Greek!

The most common seem to be Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Russian. Here are some subway posters that I saw when I was home a few weeks ago, a sign for correctly pronouncing fast-Korean food, which seems to be becoming a “thing”.







About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
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2 Responses to NYC Subway Languages

  1. Louise Egan says:

    Ha, ha! You thought that pedi-cab ride through the park was “magical?!” I remember skidding on the icy path through the park to Sullivan St., where we went the wrong way down the street until we banged up onto the sidewalk and stopped breathlessly in front of Emily’s after-school place. But you always did like wild rides!//Anyway, I was looking at the same MTA poster the other day, trying — without success — to decode and memorize the Russian.

  2. Pingback: The importance of language access | Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein

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