Mapping Heritage Languages

May 15, 2014 by

As geographers know, major patterns on a map often conceal more subtle – and often more interesting – configurations. This is often the case with language maps: mapping a majority language often masks the extent of various minority languages.

Prevalent language other than English

Consider, for example, the issue of Heritage languages in the U.S. The term “heritage languages” refers to both immigrant languages such as Spanish, Tagalog, or Russian, and Indigenous Native American languages. Among the nearly 400 heritage languages spoken in the U.S. today, Spanish is by far the most prevalent: of the 55.4 million people who spoke a language other than English at home in 2007, 34.5 million spoke Spanish. Moreover, Spanish is the most widespread non‑English language in the majority of U.S. counties, as can be seen from the map at the top of this note. Only three significant areas of non-English, non-Spanish language use are revealed by this map. First, Native American languages are spoken at the “four corner” area of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, as well as in certain counties of Wyoming, Montana, and Oklahoma. Second, two relatively small French-speaking areas stand out: one in Louisiana and the other in the New England states of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. Third, a modest German-speaking belt stretches from Montana through the Dakotas and into Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Prevalent language other than English_Spanish

However, if Spanish is taken out of the picture, a different spatial pattern is revealed. For one, the Native American language zone becomes much more extensive. Another curious discovery is that French is spoken in a much larger area as well, extending from Louisiana to Mississippi and Arkansas, and from the three New England states mentioned above to much of upstate New York and Massachusetts. In fact, many counties between those two francophone centers have a French-speaking presence. On the other hand, there are also numerous counties, chiefly in Texas, but also in some other states, where only English and Spanish are spoken. Other areas where predominant immigrant languages are revealed by this map include the Tagalog-speaking area in Southern California, and the Scandinavian Belt in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (here, mapped as “Other languages”). Finally, German, which according to the earlier map was widespread only in some northern states, emerges as a kind of “default” heritage language, without a clear geographical pattern. Thus, excluding Spanish from consideration helps reveal certain interesting patterns while concealing others.

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