The Sound of the Melting Pot.

Via Sociological Images, the Modern Language Association has created a terrific set of interactive maps showing where people speak different languages all over the country. You can map a particular language, compare states down to the county or zip code level, and get all kinds of interesting data (the data come from the census – your tax dollars at work).

There are lots of interesting things here – did you know that after English, Spanish, Chinese, French, and German, the language most commonly spoken in the U.S. is Tagalog? More than Italian, Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, or Polish.

There are concentrations of non-English speakers in the places you expect – California, Texas, New York, and so on. But it's also true that with the exception of a few counties dotted here and there, almost everywhere you go in America today, there are significant numbers of people who speak languages other than English at home. Here's the map that shows how many people speak any language other than English at home:

National map.jpg

Now let's compare two states, Iowa and Pennsylvania:

Iowa PA map.jpg

What we see is that while there are a lot more people in Pennsylvania who speak languages other than English, even in the heartland, there are lots and lots of people speaking other languages. Although these maps don't show changes over time (and perhaps someone has made them, although I haven't seen it anywhere), they do show one of the main reasons immigration has become so volatile an issue in the last few years.

If you live in New York or Los Angeles or Houston, you’re used to hearing a lot of different languages spoken – on the street as you pass people by, in stores, all around you. But if you live in a lot of other places, it just wasn't that common until a few years ago. But now, you might stop in the drug store and hear the clerk speaking to a customer in Spanish. To a lot of people, that's quite jarring. Some find it something to celebrate, a testament to the marvel that is America, where people from all over the globe come to start new lives and remake our country anew with each generation. Other people find it unsettling. Then those latter people, who may have conflicting feelings about what this all means, turn on the radio and hear the likes of Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck tell them that these foreigners are stealing their country and destroying their way of life.

These people are still open to persuasion - you can consider "Press one for English" a meaningless three seconds of your time, or a terrible affront to everything you stand for. But those who will be arguing for comprehensive immigration reform (there is supposed to be another legislative push on it this year), should be prepared for the fact that the advocates of fear and resentment will be singing loudly during the debate.

--Paul Waldman

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