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Global

Lingua Americana

A short piece I did for the Texas Observer is here.

If you think people in America should speak only English, maybe Texas isn’t the state for you. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of people who reported speaking a language that’s not English at home rose by 860,000 to 6.86 million. They now make up 33 percent of the state’s population. (Come to think of it, maybe the U.S. isn’t the country for you: In 2005, 52 million people reported speaking another language, up 5 million since 2000.)

The Modern Language Association has just released colorful charts, based on data from the 2005 U.S. Census American Community Survey, that allow you to pull out data by state for the 30 most frequently spoken languages in the U.S. (All the data and maps are at www.mla.org/map_data.) It’s worth noting that these stats only cover speakers of languages other than English, not their fluency in English, so they capture seventh-generation, bilingual German families in New Braunfels as well as newly arrived Farsi speakers in Houston.

Spanish speakers account for the larger part of the increase in the population of non-English speakers. In Texas, they added about 737,000 non-English speakers. Texas had the second-largest increase, behind California. Even with anti-immigrant sentiment a major concern for the GOP, Spanish speakers gained in 44 states in the same period; only in Mississippi, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Maine, and Vermont did their numbers drop. That’s a 4.1 million-person increase nationwide.

The polyglotting of Texas and the nation seems so inevitable that true connoisseurs of xenophobia should rejoice about the boost in Spanish speakers. Spanish, after all, is a European language. It’s the only European language on the rise; the numbers for French, German, Italian, Greek, and Polish, all spoken by older generations of immigrants, are dropping. Spanish is written in the Roman alphabet, so you can sound out written words even if you don’t know what they mean. And the language has thousands of words recognizable in English because of a shared heritage. MALDEF or LULAC aren’t likely to adopt this as a slogan, but we’ll say it here: Compared with Chinese, Thai, or Urdu, Spanish is practically English.