Sioux Falls to Celebrate All 137 of Its Languages

The World Comes to Whittier-2013. Photo courtesy of City of Sioux FallsThe World Comes to Whittier-2013. Photo courtesy of City of Sioux Falls
Argus Leader
September 23, 2014
By Jon Walker

Sioux Falls people have 137 ways to say please and thank you.

That’s the latest tally on the number of languages and dialects spoken by the 166,000 local residents.

It’s a number that connects the east-side Whittier neighborhood with a writer working this year at Harvard University.

If all goes as planned, residents will be able to hear all 137 in one sitting during a poetry reading in early 2016 at Meldrum Park on East Sixth Street.

The plan took seed when Ben Miller, 50, a New York writer with Midwestern roots, considered moving to Sioux Falls. He visited the city last November and saw a recently completed mural at Meldrum Park, which shows people of numerous backgrounds working together and interacting as one community.

“When he saw it, he said, ‘What if this mural could speak all those languages?’ ” said Anne Wiese, who is Miller’s wife and also a writer.

The vehicle for that will be verse. One by one, readers at the wall will recite “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a poem by William Carlos Williams.

The effort serves an essential purpose, Wiese said.

She attended a meeting on artistic diversity Monday at City Hall and spoke in an interview afterward.

“Too many immigrants have felt silenced,” Wiese said. “Your native language is part of who you are. Sometimes people feel pressure to let their native language go silent in order to make their way in a new place.”

That will change, for one day at least. One detail moving forward, however, will be how many different ways there are to read “The Red Wheelbarrow.” It’s a moving target.

An Argus Leader report in 2007 told of 48 flags flying inside the John Morrell meat plant to honor employees who speak different languages and had immigrated here from around the world. The school district last fall reported 60 different languages for children in K-12 classrooms. The Whittier neighborhood alone is home to 80 different languages, Nan Baker, executive director of the Sioux Falls Arts Council, said last week.

The number grew again Monday at City Hall, when Molly McCarthy, an arts council board member, said the poem would be translated into 130 locally spoken languages.

Adam Roach, economic development coordinator for the city, had supplied that number to the arts council after consulting the Sioux Falls MultiCultural Center.

There, the number of languages has inched still higher.

“We have 137 documented in Sioux Falls,” said Christy Nicolaisen, executive director at the center, said late Monday.

She breaks them down by continent, starting with Belarusian, Bosnian and Bulgarian in Europe. Acholi and Afar start the list from Africa. Azeri, Bangla and Bhutanese start the list from Asia.

All 137 are heard in Sioux Falls homes, she said.

The Multi-Cultural Center tracks that number from two sources. One is registrations for driver education. The other is an after-school program to help children with reading recovery and other educational needs. The agency has close to 50 interpreters on call to assist in those conversations and in court, hospital, community and school settings.

“We can cover about 40 different languages,” Nicolaisen said.

For the others, “we struggle like the rest of the world,” she said. “It is a challenge to find competent professional interpreters.”

The poem at the mural is intended to give them a voice together in a single day.

Miller of Davenport, Iowa, went to school at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, then advanced to a graduate writing program at New York University. He is the author of “The River Bend Chronicle,” a series of essays. He once planned to be in Sioux Falls by now, but he earned a fellowship to spend the 2014-15 school year at Harvard at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. That delays his arrival, but it’s a fortuitous turn of events, his wife said.

“He said, ‘Look. This amazing thing has happened. ... I’m going to have access to people who can do the translation,’” Wiese said.

Wiese is the author of a collection of poems called “Floating City.” She is a Minneapolis native who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but has family ties to southwestern Minnesota and South Dakota. She and her husband have bought a house in Sioux Falls, she said. She expects the translation project to unify many.

“It could be very validating,” she said.

Languages and dialects spoken in Sioux Falls

• European, 22: Belarusian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Estonian, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Serbian, Shqip or Albanian, Slavic or Ukrainian, Slovak.

• African, 69: Acholi, Afar, Afrikanns, Akan, Amharic, Anyuak, Arabic, Avokaya, Baki, Bari, Bassa, Bhojpuri, Burundi, Creole, Didinga, Dinka, Erapice, French, Fulani, Grego, Hausa, Hiadi, Igbo or Ibo, Jur, Kabila, Kinyarwanda, Kikuyu, Kisio, Kiswahili, Krahn, Krash, Kuka, Kunama, Lakoka, Lango, Lingala, Luganda, Madi, MaiMai or Bantu, Mandinka, Mawo, Mondari, Moru, Murule, Ndogo, Nubiar, Nuer, Nyambara, Nyangwana, Nyanja, Odak, Ogoni, Oromo, Pojulu, Rafica, Ruel, Rwanda, Shilluk, Sholuk, Somali, Swahili, Tigrinya, Tekamah, Toposa, Turkish, Urdu, Wolof or Senegal, Zande, Zulu.

• Asian, 34: Azeri, Azerbaijan, Bangla, Bhutanese, Cambodian, Cantonese, Chinese, Dari, Farsi or Persian, Filipino, French, Gujarati, Hayeren or Armenim, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Kazakh, Khmer, Korean, Kurdish, Lao, Lergdie, Malay, Mandarine Chinese, Nepali, Oriya, Pashtu, Russian, Tagala, Telegu, Thai, Urdu, Vietnamese, Zhongwen in China.

• Central and South American, 4: Castellano in Chile, Portuguese, Quechua in Ecuador, Spanish.

• North American, 1: English.

• Subtotal: 130.

The list comes from the Sioux Falls Multicultural Center. Christy Nicolaisen, executive director at the center, said late Monday that seven more languages make the including: Kirundi dialect, Gurage, plus several Latin American languages and dialects such as the Mayan language, Mam dialect and Kiche.

• Total: 137.

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