Linguistic diversity in the U.S.

The United States is known as a melting pot of people and ethnicities. It is also a melting pot of languages. People living here speak over 350 languages at home. Product marketers therefore rightfully wonder whether translation applies to exports only. Maybe it makes sense to start right at home and translate for your neighbors. This article will briefly explore linguistic diversity in the U.S. and move from the national down to the city level. As the geographic scope narrows, things become more interesting and messy. National leaders may still have good reasons for ignoring linguistic diversity. But community leaders do not have this luxury. The smaller the area of responsibility, the more pressing the need for translation and interpretation becomes.

The national picture

Overall, the United States is a fairly homogeneous place when it comes to languages.

Languages in the US
79% of the people speak English at home. The next most popular language is Spanish, spoken by just more than a tenth of the population. The very many other languages do not play a significant role on the national level.

What is significant?

“Significant” languages are commonly defined as languages spoken by
a) more than x% of the population,
b) more than x speakers.
Government is concerned with representing their constituents. Consequently, laws and policies tend to use percentages to define significance. California, generally viewed as a progressive state, decided on 15% as threshold for triggering translation activities.
Product marketers, in contrast, would be more interested in market size. So, they would focus on the number of speakers instead. Since a useful number very much depends on the kind of product, I am arbitrarily settling on 1,000,000 speakers here.

Whitehouse.gov

As we have seen above, Spanish is spoken by only 12.9% of the people living in the United States. Even by Californian standards, this is not a large enough part of the populace to demand translation. And federal guidelines are cautiously avoiding hard numbers. Health and Human Services, for example, set up guidelines for recipients of certain federal funds. They “are required to take reasonable steps to ensure meaningful access to their programs and activities”. But “there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution”.

Consequently, linguistic policies vary with general attitudes of office holders. Here’s a relevant time line:
– 2009/2010: www.whitehouse.gov/espanol is set up.
– 2017-01-31, LA Times: No habla espanol? The White House website no longer speaks Spanish.
– 2017-01-31: Fox News: White House takes down all Spanish-language content from its website. President Trump says U.S. policitians should “set an example and speak English while in the United States.”
– 2017-02-01: Fox News: Trump White House restores Spanish-language Twitter account.
– 2017-02-09: Univision: Yet, White House Spanish-language Twitter account falls into disuse.
As of today (July 2017), the Spanish subsite of whitehouse.gov is still not operable.
At the same time, census.gov published one of their most recent reports in Spanish. This shows that even inside the federal government, there are different interpretations of what makes a significant readership.

National brand marketing

While government officials are interested in percentages, national marketers focus on market size. The sheer number of speakers certainly hints at decent market potential for several languages:

  • English 231,122,908
  • Spanish 37,458,470
  • Chinese 2,896,766
  • Tagalog 1,613,346
  • Vietnamese 1,399,936
  • French 1,307,742
  • Korean 1,117,343
  • German 1,063,773

“Chinese” is a cover term for multiple distinct spoken languages. But they share a written form, so translation into Simplified Chinese writing still makes sense.

Linguistic diversity at the state level

The following graphic shows data from the 2013 census at the state level. States are sorted by the number of speakers of a language other than English, so states with the largest non-English communities are at the top. Spanish is the dominant secondary language in all states except for Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont. The yellow band shows the “runner-up”, i.e. most popular the non-English language besides Spanish.

linguistic diversity by US state

We can readily draw the following conclusions just from looking at this overview graph:
a) states show large differences in their linguistic landscape
b) about 10 states have a significant non-English population
c) Spanish is still the only non-English language that plays a role on the state level
d) Spanish is spoken by a significant part of the population in a handful of states
e) California has a somewhat significant third language, namely Chinese

Using California’s 15% threshold, the following states would translate important government information and urge relevant private parties such as healthcare providers to do the same:

Top Spanish populations by percentage of speakers
With a cut-off of 1 million speakers, product marketers would use Spanish marketing in the same states except for New Mexico and Nevada:

 

Top Spanish populations by number of speakers

 

Diversity at the municipal level

In the 15 largest metro areas, people speak between 130 and 192 different languages:

Top US metro areas by number of languages
New York City is the biggest metro area in the U.S. and, as expected, it boasts the largest number of languages. However, size is not all that matters. Los Angeles hosts just a few languages less with 6 million fewer speakers overall. Washington DC, Seattle, Phoenix, and San Francisco are almost at the same level of multilingualism. But, again, they do so with less than half of the population of Los Angeles.
The census also includes many languages in each case with just a few dozen speakers. So, the number of languages alone does not give a good sense of linguistic diversity. The list for Phoenix, for example, shows Icelandic, Ottawa, and Athapascan with 15 speakers each.
So, let’s rerank the cities based on the percentage of people who speak a language other than English:

linguistic diversity in top US metro areas
Even though Detroit harbors 126 languages overall, 88% of speakers use English at home. Thus, Detroit is still a quite homogenous place. Los Angeles and Miami, on the other hand, would have a very different feel. There, 54% and 51% respectively speak a language other than English. That said, these cities are fairly homogenous themselves in a different sense: most of the non-English speakers use the same language, namely Spanish. San Francisco and New York would likely feel most diverse. Non-English speakers make up 40% and 38% of the population, respectively. But only half of those speak Spanish, the other majority language.
The “runner-up” languages in metro areas are still not significant enough to justify city-wide support:

most significant language besides Spanish in US metros
Here, we should keep in mind that people tend to cluster. There will be Chinese neighborhoods and French Creole neighborhoods, Korean subdivisions and Polish ones. Specific schools will possibly have majorities speaking these languages, and hospitals may mainly cater go a specific linguistic group. Doctors in Wausau, WI, better be prepared to work with Hmong. And school principals in “Little Mogadishu” may want to send out school trip announcements in Somali.

Conclusion

Overall, the United States speaks English. In many places, it would simply not make sense to offer translated DMV forms. As the geographic scope gets smaller, however, it becomes clear that people of similar background tend to live near each other. Pockets of significant linguistic diversity exist all over the place, and the need for translation and interpretation is real. Yet, as the Department of Health and Human Services rightly points out: a cookie-cutter approach does not work. Each individual official, educator, or health care provider needs to decide what suits their constituents best. One school may not need to worry about translation at all, while the next needs to support one language besides English, and another school a few miles down the road may need to work with yet another language.

Written by Philipp Strazny of The Geo Group Corporation.

 

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