Stepping off the train in Jackson Heights, Queens, on a recent Sunday, I discovered two groups doing sonic battle in a courtyard ringed with shops: a Tibetan religious service led by crimson-robed monks versus a “Bangladeshi Americans for Bernie Sanders” rally. Later I looked up the name of the place: Diversity Square.
No surprise, given this is the epicenter of the most diverse neighborhood in America.
More than 130 different languages are spoken in Jackson Heights, but many of them are from places so small, so remote, they get lost in the commotion. Take Mustang, a dialect of Tibetan with only 7,500 speakers worldwide — 800 of whom live in the US.
Dialects like Mustang — also referred to as “Mustangi” — are waging quiet fights here, for time, attention, and survival. What exactly are they fighting against? You could say it’s the pursuit of the American Dream itself. Given the challenges of starting a new life halfway across the world, even when a language is spoken at home, English is often what kids focus on learning.
As language activist Nawang Gurung explains: “Parents work 12 to 15 hours in restaurants, nanny jobs, as nail technicians. … Now if parents talk to their kids in Mustangi dialect, kids are gonna respond in English.”
Nawang has become a custodian of Mustang here in New York City. “Language represents your identity,” he explains. “Who you are. If the Mustangi dialect vanishes, it’s slowly gonna mean, it has a totally new identity.”
Read more: PRI