A few weeks ago, the U.S. Census Bureau released a new interactive online map pinpointing all the different languages spoken in homes across the United States. According to the data collected through the American Community Survey from 2007 to 2011, some 60.6 million people spoke a language other than English at home in 2011. Of course, a majority of these (37.6 million, represented in pink on the Washington Post map below) speak Spanish. The other “foreign” languages most spoken throughout the country in 2011 were Chinese (2.9 million), Tagalog, one of the languages spoken by the Filipino community (1.6 million), Vietnamese (1.4 million), French (1.3 million), German (1.1 million) and Korean (1.1 million). I found it SO interesting to learn that there are so many people in the United States who speak French (darker blue on the map) at home.
Not surprisingly, French speakers in the United States are concentrated in two main areas: in Louisiana and in parts of Maine and Vermont, close to the border with Quebec. In Frenchville, Maine, for example, 80% of the population speaks French at home, making the small town quite appropriately named ;-) Historically, the number of immigrants from France has been smaller than from other European nations though some arrived earlier… like before the United States was even founded. According to the Census Bureau, approximately 10 million Americans claim French ancestry. Comparatively, 49 million Americans claim German ancestry and 17 million claim an Italian heritage. Yet, both languages are less spoken these days in the United States than French is. German (yellow on the map) is only spoken at home by 1.1 million Americans and Italian by just 700,000 people. Why is that?
For the French, there are distinct waves of immigration to the United States. Some, as I mentioned earlier, came really early, straight from France as settlers to New France. Others settled in Canada but then made their way South looking for work between the 1840s and 1920s. These are the French speakers now found in the Northeast. There was also a wave of French protestant Huguenots who fled religious persecutions in the 17th and 18th century. And then there’s the newbies, the more recent arrivals who apparently love the sun and are mainly found in Florida and California. These different waves help to explain why French Americans are less visible than other immigrant groups. French-Canadians who settled in America and the Cajuns in Louisiana are very likely to speak French but also very unlikely to identify with France. They identify with the New World. They’re Cajuns. French-Canadians. Not French. The French protestant huguenots, on the other hand, assimilated early and very well. They’re unlikely to identify with France other than as a distant heritage and do not speak French. As a result, there isn’t a strong French American identity the way there is for Italian Americans or Americans of German ancestry but there’s still a strong attachment to the language. I did some additional research and found some interesting little stories that might further explain the decline of German and Italian among the immigrant communities. And some of those have to do with the fact that during World War I and/or World War II, I they were considered the enemy’s language. You risked being branded an “enemy alien” if you were caught speaking them in public. Schools stopped teaching them. French never have that stigma… German recovered a little bit and is now one of the most taught languages in U.S. high school (though far behind Spanish and French) while Italian never did. That’s unfortunate because I think it’s a beautiful language. Not as pretty as French though… or, apparently, as widely spoken in the United States