Hui Ming Lin dedicates anywhere from six to eight hours each day to learning English. She’s enrolled in an online ESL class, practices English daily with her American friends, and consumes a lot of American media — usually pop songs or family comedies, where she learns idioms and conversational American English.
“I’m determined to learn English because I want to be independent, communicate or do anything with Americans and I don’t rely on my kids,” said Lin, who immigrated to Chicago from Taiwan over a year ago.
Lin currently lives with her 27-year-old son, Kevin, who came to the U.S. as a teen and lived with his aunt in New Jersey. After high school, college and being in the workforce for several years, Kevin now speaks English fluently.
As she sat next to Kevin, Lin said some of her American friends have told her: “‘Oh, you have to talk with your son in English.’” Lin then looked at her son, and they both started laughing. “I spend the whole day, a lot of time learning English, I think I need a break from it,” she said.
Lin said she’s more comfortable speaking Mandarin at home, and plus, she wants to make sure her son keeps his Mandarin-speaking ability throughout his life.
Lin is one of about 42,000 Chicagoans who speak Chinese, which includes both Mandarin and Cantonese, at home. Collectively, they make Chinese the third most-commonly spoken language at home in Chicago, after English and Spanish, according to the most recent census data available.
Overall, about one-third of Chicagoans 5 years and older speak a language other than English at home, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey (ACS).
Most are Spanish speakers, who make up almost 70% of residents who speak a language other than English at home.
But there are more than 40 languages or groups of languages, other than English or Spanish, spoken in homes across Chicago, reflecting the wide-ranging diversity of people who call the city home — whether they’re refugees seeking asylum, immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.
After English and Spanish, the five most common languages spoken at home in Chicago are Chinese (which includes both Mandarin and Cantonese), Polish, Tagalog, Urdu and Arabic.
In each of the United States’ largest cities, dozens of languages are spoken at home. But a WBEZ analysis shows that some cities are notable for the large numbers of residents who speak specific languages other than English or Spanish. For instance, in San Francisco, nearly 18% of the population speaks Chinese. In San Jose, more than 10% of the population speaks Vietnamese. Chicago tops the list among the nation’s largest cities for its percentages of residents that speak Polish or Serbo-Croatian languages at home.
Spanish can be heard in homes in almost every part of the city, but where other languages are spoken can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, according to a WBEZ analysis of Census data.One of the limitations of using Census data at a more local level is that data on several individual languages are aggregated into language groups to protect the privacy of those who speak less common languages.
As a result, only a 12-category summary of language use data — which includes categories like “Other Indo-European Languages”, a grouping of language families spoken in South Asia, Europe, and the Middle East — is available at the ZIP code level.
WBEZ spoke to Chicagoans in different parts of the city who speak a language other than English or Spanish at home.
Keeping the language alive on the Northwest Side
Chicago has long been known as a center for Polish migration over the last century and a half. A vibrant Polish-speaking community still exists within the city, despite slowing immigration and many who have left Chicago and moved to the northwest suburbs. More than 7% of the country’s Polish-speaking population lives in Chicago, primarily on the city’s Northwest Side, according to Census data. By comparison, less than 1% of the nation’s total population lives in Chicago.
Peter Alex Dorman, a freelance filmmaker who currently lives in Jefferson Park, grew up in a Polish-speaking family in the suburbs of Chicago. His parents immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and met in Chicago — part of a wave of Polish migrants seeking asylum from political upheaval, during the Solidarity period in Poland, and greater economic opportunities.
Polish was the primary language his family spoke at home, and it was intentionally so.
“[My dad] has perpetually … repeated to me [about] wanting to keep the language alive through his children,” said Dorman. “A lot of his family is still in Poland, and the same goes with my mom, so it’s just important to them that … in order to keep those familial ties alive, we need to be able to communicate with each other.”
During his childhood, Dorman and his sister would attend Polish school on the weekends in the basement of a Polish church near where he currently lives. But as Dorman grew older, he slowly began losing touch with his Polish heritage and the language.
It wasn’t until Dorman was in his 20s and working on a documentary project about Polish Americans in Chicago that the desire to reconnect with his heritage resurfaced. “It just reignited that interest for me to be more fluent and to keep practicing [Polish],” he said.
Dorman has since found a community of friends with whom he can speak Polish. And during the pandemic, he began taking language classes online with a Polish tutor.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t speak Polish, and I’m very happy that’s the case,” said Dorman, who is also learning Spanish through his community organizing work.
Learning both Polish and Spanish is helping Dorman to feel more connected to Chicago. “I’m grateful to be able to communicate that way … just to be more connected to Chicago as a whole, because I love the city and all of its languages,” he said.
West Ridge: a neighborhood port of entry
One of the first things Asiya Asif did when she and her husband immigrated to Chicago from Pakistan a year and a half ago was enroll in ESL classes at the Indo American Center, a nonprofit social service agency that offers an array of services for new immigrants. A friend of hers who already lived in Chicago had suggested it.
Living in Pakistan, Asif spoke Urdu, Punjabi and a little bit of Pashto. She knew very basic English, but lacked confidence in her speaking skills.
Now, a year and a half and many ESL classes later, Asif is able to listen and converse in English, and has even begun to write articles. Before moving to Chicago, Asif was a writer in Pakistan, where her job was to write articles in Urdu for soldiers in the Pakistan Navy and Army.
“My dream is [to] write an article in English. I write one article in English a little bit … about my class fellows, my teachers and the Indo American Center, first time I write in English,” she said. “I feel so happy, so many mistakes but I write, because when you try again and try again, you learn more.”
Her classmates in ESL all come from different places and many of them speak different languages, but they all meet on a weekly basis to learn grammar and practice their pronunciation.
“[My classmates] speak Urdu, someone Hindi, someone Gujarati, someone Pashto,” she said “Because many students [come from] Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, many countries … You know, many people live here in Chicago.”West Ridge is a “port of entry neighborhood” — a community where many new immigrants chose to settle — said Angie Lobo, executive director of the Indo American Center.
That’s a fact evident in the data, as well. About 40% of West Ridge residents were born outside the U.S., about double the percentage for the city as a whole, according to an analysis of census data from Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). West Ridge is home to more foreign-born Chicagoans than any other community area in the city.
The Indo American Center was founded in 1990 to serve the families of immigrants who were mainly highly-skilled professionals and considered among what some call a first wave of immigration from South Asia.
In the most recent wave of migration, said Lobo, the Indo American Center has started serving more people who are undocumented, seeking asylum, or have more limited English abilities. Most are immigrants from South Asia, but there are also students from Central and South America and Northern Africa, as well, said Lobo. Staff at the Indo American Center speak 15 different languages, she said.
“It depends on what’s going on in the world,” said Lobo, on the enrollment makeup of the Center’s ESL classes. “We have a huge number of Afghani students right now,” she said.
Approximately 2,500 Afghan refugees have resettled in Chicago since August 2021, after a tumultuous U.S. withdrawal from the country.
Ali Shah, a journalist in Kabul at the time, was one of them. A nonprofit organization that was a donor to the newspaper where he worked helped him evacuate, said Shah. Last November, he was resettled at a hotel in Skokie with a few dozen refugees from Afghanistan, and in February, he moved to an apartment in West Ridge.
Shah’s family still lives in Kabul, and he talks to them in Farsi as much as he can over WhatsApp. “I wish I could — I know it takes time and maybe it’s impossible — but I hope to be reunited with them,” Shah said. “I miss them.”
He’s enrolled in an ESL class at the Uptown-based Chinese Mutual Aid Association (CMAA), a small nonprofit that is the leader of a consortium of nonprofits that provide ESL classes in Chicago.
The lessons he learns in ESL help him to navigate everyday life in a new country, like how to buy groceries or make an appointment with a doctor, said Shah.
“Now, I can do for myself a lot of stuff,” he said. “I’m able to know what English speakers say.”
Language access and a wide range of other needs
Of course, learning English is just one of myriad challenges facing Chicagoans who have limited English proficiency. Wraparound services that help people find jobs, child care or get assistance with their utility bills are vital, advocates say.
Both Shah and Asif are grateful to have a place they can go to get help navigating a variety of other things.
Through the Chinese Mutual Aid Association, Shah not only greatly improved his English, but he was able to build a resume and find work, first at O’Hare Airport and now at CMAA, working the front desk. Through the Indo American Center, Asif and her husband have gotten health insurance, CityKey cards, help with understanding their bills, and they’re also on the path to getting employment authorization.
Asif has gotten involved with other programs at the Indo American Center, like volunteering for a gala, helping out other students in her ESL teacher’s classes, and doing phone bank outreach for the center. It’s become her second home, Asif said.
Rhea Yap, director of strategic initiatives at the CMAA, said it’s been helpful for the organization to think more holistically about the needs of their ESL students.
“I think that what’s often taken for granted in education and training programs is the community we build,” Yap adds.
ESL teachers often stay after class or help students get to appointments on the weekends or understand government forms they need to fill out, Yap said. And during ESL classes, students from different countries and backgrounds are able to make genuine connections with each other.
Chinatown is a neighborhood where many new immigrants or Chinese speakers chose to live for that very reason, finding connection.
According to census data, about 57% of Chinese speakers in Chicago — including both Mandarin and Cantonese speakers — have limited English proficiency, making Chinese speakers the city’s language group with the second-highest limited English proficiency.
“Chinatown is often the easiest place to initially live as they improve their English,” said David Wu, executive director of the Pui Tak center, a church-based community center in Chinatown that offers online ESL classes to about 500 students.
Seniors may also choose to stay in the neighborhood, Wu said, because they can find jobs in the community, access support services, or form friendships with other residents who speak the same language they do.
Sometimes, seniors who move out to the suburbs with their adult children end up feeling quite lonely, because there isn’t as much of a Chinese-speaking community as there is in Chinatown, Wu said.
For Lin, who lives in Lakeview with her son, she would visit Chinatown about once a week when she first moved to Chicago from Taiwan, craving the ability to walk around in a neighborhood and not have to use English. Now that she’s improved her English and has friends all over the city, Chinatown has become a place she can come to when she misses home or when she’s got a very specific craving.
“Mostly it’s the soup dumplings,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the job title for Rhea Yap.
Amy Qin is WBEZ’s data reporter. Follow her @amyqin12.