Heritage Languages

Jul 21, 2010 by

Over 180 languages, from Adamawa Fulfulde (a Niger-Congo language from Cameroon) to Zoogocho Zapotec (an Oto-Manguean language from Mexico), are spoken in the U.S., most of them by immigrants from other lands. Naturally, immigrant parents want their children, whether brought to this country when small or born already here, to speak their language as well. Such languages, picked up from immigrant parents and used only at home are referred to as Heritage languages. They are, in short, part of their speakers’ cultural heritage, together with food and other traditions.

According to the 2005 American Communities Survey, 52 million Americans (that’s 19% of the country’s population) speak a language other than English at home. And the number of Heritage language speakers is constantly growing, both the absolute number and in proportion to the general population. The states with a high number of Heritage language speakers include Texas (34% of the state’s population), New York (28%) and Florida (25%). But the absolute champion in this respect is California, where over 42% of the population speak a language other than English at home.

Although there are more than 180 Heritage languages in the U.S., several are more common than others. The top ten Heritage language in the U.S. include — of course — Spanish, and then Chinese, French, German, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Italian, Korean, Russian and Polish (these data come from US Population Census and American Community Surveys, both of which allow respondents to write in the language they speak; many Chinese consider Mandarin, Cantonese and other Chinese varieties as dialects of the same language, so they write “Chinese”). But different languages are popular in different parts of the country. For example, there is a high concentration of German HL speakers in Logan and McIntosh counties in North Dakota and McPherson county in South Dakota.

In California, of course, Spanish has a major position: here, 67% of those who speak a language other than English in the home, speak Spanish. Other popular Heritage languages are Tagalog (4.8%), Chinese (3.7%), Vietnamese (3.3%) and Korean (2.4%). But if one gets to the county level, the picture is somewhat different. Thus, in Santa Clara county (where Stanford University is located), 74% of Heritage speakers speak Spanish, 8% Vietnamese, 6% Chinese and 5% Tagalog, but in San Francisco county only 27% of Heritage language speakers speak Spanish, while 40% speak Chinese, 9% Tagalog, 5% speak Russian (cf. to the national average of 1%), 3% Vietnamese and 3% French.

In the next few postings we will look more closely at the nature of Heritage languages and some of the issues in Heritage language maintenance.

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