Hidden Language Clusters Revealed

by Translation Guy on February 17, 2011
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Mr. Local Business Guy thinks, “Hey, all my customers speak English because everybody’s speaking English.” Not so fast. All your customers speak English because they are the only ones you can talk to. And money talks, no matter what the language. So English only means only English. And I’m not talking international business here. I’m talking local, as in Main Street, USA.

If that’s your backyard, watch out!  Because the “us” in USA is no longer English-only, and local has gone global. Look out your window. Somewhere under those snowdrifts, one out of every five homes out there is not English-only. And we’re not just talking español.  Some 300 different languages are spoken here. And it’s no longer just West Side Story, where immigrant turf is confined to tenement blocks. Non-English communities can be found in all sorts of places.  So even if your business is local, your audience may still be global.

But the trick is, where? Now it’s easy to find out.

“The MLA Language Map uses data from the US Census 2000 to display the locations and numbers of speakers of thirty languages and three groups of less commonly spoken languages in the United States. The census data are based on responses to the question, ‘Does this person speak a language other than English at home?’ The Language Map illustrates the concentration and number of speakers by zip codes and counties for the three hundred languages spoken in the United States, including actual counts and percentages of speakers. The Data Center uses data from the 2005 American Community Survey about the thirty languages most commonly spoken in the United States to provide a snapshot of recent changes in American language communities. In addition users can add to each map the colleges and universities that teach the selected language and can display fall 2009 enrollments for the language by undergraduate and graduate levels.”

So this is an important business tool, right? Kind of a must-have for anyone interested in speaking their customer’s language (oh, the sweetest sound there is…).

Playing with this tool puts the migrant back in immigrant―more evidence for a glorious mosaic than the melting pot. Geography shows immigration as chunky, not smooth, at least for the initial stages of the American experience when native language fires still burn.

When you do it by zip code, what a glorious mosaic it is. I went looking for a few language communities here in NYC. As you’ll see from the maps, even journeys across the vast Pacific are mostly the results of gossip among families and neighbors, packing up block by block from Old World to New, one social network at a time.

Here’s a comparison of Korean and Chinese local immigration by zip code, the bluer, the denser. Immigration to the New York metro region soared after Johnson lifted quotas that had restricted Asian immigration. Chinese made the move to old Chinatown on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. As their numbers grew, many made the migration to the promised land of Queens, Flushing.

Koreans arriving a bit later skipped Chinatown, but joined the East Asian migration (via the #7 line, the so-called “Orient Express”) to Queens. Fort Lee and Bergen County, across the Hudson from the northern end of Manhattan, became another destination for Koreans. The Poles went to Greenpoint, and the Russians to Brighton Beach, each language to its own neighborhood, each immigrant hoping to reach a critical mass of familiarity and community, which then resonates with their children and those who follow in their immigrant footsteps.

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