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June 24, 2004 - Language Map of the United States - 2004-06-23

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: June 24, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: a map of mother tongues in America.

RS: Last week, we told you about, a collection of well-known American speeches. Well, there's something brand new on the Web. It's a way to find out which languages are spoken in any American neighborhood, and by how many people.

AA: The Modern Language Association created the map with information from the last U.S. population count, the Census of 2000. The executive director of this scholarly association, Rosemary Feal, says the map is for educators, marketers, public officials -- really, anyone interested.

FEAL: "We started off with a paper map -- it sounds quaint -- on a table, sort of putting Post-it's, you know, here's a concentration of Arabic speakers and here's the Portuguese speakers. And we soon realized that it had to be interactive and we thought, well, why not put it on the Web and let everyone take advantage of it."

RS: "Now how is this different from just the census data? Doesn't the local government take in the census data and analyze it and use it? How would this be any different?"

FEAL: "Well, first of all, ours allows anyone to have access and to play around with it, whereas if the particular community has the census data, it's probably buried in some report that addresses the demographics."

"Sure we all have the numbers available to us, but it's another thing to plug in your Zip [postal] code and to see those 300 speakers of Polish and the 80 speakers of Vietnamese in a tabular fashion, or to look at the language map and see the colors jumping out at you where the density of certain speakers might be high."

AA: "What are the top five languages that you've got?"

FEAL: "The top languages spoken at home in the United States after English [are] Spanish, Chinese, French, German and Tagalog. Now that German is very interesting, because we know there was a great influx of Germans in previous immigration waves. But it's fascinating to see how many speakers of German there still are in the United States."

RS: "And how did that break down, over 18 and under 18?"

FEAL: "For example German, if you look at the states where it's most spoken, like California, there's over 135,000 adults who speak German in California, but only around 11,000 children between five and seventeen. In New York, 85,000 speakers over age 18 and only 7,000 under. So you can see that it's coming out to less than 10 percent (who are under 18)."

AA: "So what are some of the up and coming languages in this country?"

FEAL: "Some of the up and coming languages include Asian languages such as Vietnamese. Tagalog, one of the languages spoken in the Philippines, is certainly on the increase. Spanish, of course, continues to grow, as do some of the less commonly taught languages from countries where we continue to receive large numbers of immigrants. Russian has been on the increase, for example."

AA: "Now do you think your map, I'm curious, when you think about the people with the official English movement, who want to make English the official language across the country -- it is now in some states, but they want to make it national -- do you think they're going to find more ammunition from your site? Or do you think this is going to reassure them? Or what's the state of English from your map?"

FEAL: "This will show those who favor an English-only movement two things. Number one, that the great majority of people living in the United States speak English at home. Number two, that the great majority of those who speak a language other than English at home speak English very well or well -- seventy-seven percent. That's reassuring.

"When immigrants come to the United States, they want to learn English. They know that English is the key to education and to success in American society, and immigrant families are eager for their children to learn English. What we hope this map will show is that we have great linguistic resources in the United States, in addition to English, and we should be preserving those while we're learning English. The conference that I'm at here right now in the Washington area on languages and national need talks precisely about the wasted resource that we throw away when we don't encourage the next generation to keep the mother tongue while they're learning English."

RS: Rosemary Feal of the Modern Language Association spoke to us from the National Language Conference, held this week near Baltimore, Maryland. The new MLA Language Map lists the top thirty languages spoken in the United States.

AA: The map is at You can click on the link at our site, And if you'd like to speak up, write to us at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.