Heritage languages and the Melting Pot model

Jul 22, 2010 by

In yesterday’s posting, I introduced the topic of Heritage languages, that is languages spoken at home as part of one’s cultural and ethnic heritage. I also mentioned that Heritage languages as a whole are growing both in absolute numbers of speakers and in proportion to the population as a whole. Indeed, in 1980 only 23.1 million people (or 11% of the population) spoke a language other than English (or at least admitted so in the population census), but 10 years later the number grew to 31.8 million (14%), ten more years and it’s 47 million (18%). By 2005 52 million people speak a language other than English at home and that’s 19% of the population (these data are from American Communities Survey). So is the Melting Pot model failing? Are we becoming more and more fragmented as a society?

The answer is not necessarily positive, though. While it is true that Heritage Languages as a whole are growing, they are not all growing across the board. Some Heritage Languages are growing and others are shrinking. You can see that from the chart below.

And which Heritage languages are growing and which ones are shrinking varies from one period of time to the next. Take for example the decade between the 1990 and 2000 U.S. Population Censuses. Heritage languages that were growing during that decade are Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Arabic, French Creole and Gujarathi. In absolute numbers it was Spanish that grew the most — it got approximately 11 million new speakers. But because so many people spoke Spanish already, this growth consituted only 62%. In proportion to its original size, the Heritage language that grew the most during 1990s is… Heritage Russian! The number of people who speak Russian at home nearly trippled from 242,000 to 706,000.

Heritage Russian continued to grow during the next five years (2000-2005), but not as rapidly. In those five years it’s the French Creole (spoken in Haiti) that was the Heritage language that grew the most (although not nearly as much as Heritage Russian in the 1990s). Korean, Portuguese and Arabic joined the list of fast growing Heritage languages.

At the same time as these Heritage language were growing, other Heritage languages were shrinking. The 1990s saw a decrease in the number of people who speak (at home) such “old European” languages as French, German, Italian, Greek and Polish. You might be surprised, but the number of people speaking Italian at home shrank in that decade by 23%!

The period between 2000 and 2005 saw a further decrease in the numbers of speakers for the European languages (French, German, Italian, Polish, Greek, Armenian), as well as Japanese and Hebrew. Sadly, the number of people speaking Navajo (a Native American language that is currently the most robust) was shrinking too. But during those five years, the language that lost the highest proportion of its speakers was… Yiddish.

The explanation for the shrinking Heritage languages is fairly straightforward: older speakers are dying, children are no longer picking these languages from their parents (or even grandparents), and there is little or no new immigration. All in all, the Melting Pot is actually working: older waves of immigrants are gradually “melting” into the general American culture, at least as far as switching to English goes. So the overall growth of Heritage languages must be due to new immigration; the growth in the share of Spanish and Asian languages fits with that idea.

The interesting question is whether those newer waves of immigrants will follow the pattern of the earlier waves, gradually assimilating into being “American” (at least, English-speaking) or whether Spanish-, Chinese-, Tagalog-speaking communities will reach a critical mass that will prevent them from going through the Melting Pot. Time will tell. It will be interesting to look at the results of the 2010 U.S. Population Census.

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