By default, English is probably the official language of homeland security. I know some agencies communicate to their constituents in languages other than English. But I don’t know how many, how frequently, or under what conditions.
Nor do I know what the gap is: that is, how many of the 310 million people in this country don’t know about homeland security because officials don’t speak their language.
Depending on who you ask, there are somewhere between 226 and 382 languages in the US. That’s not especially precise.
Here are some other rough estimates describing our polyglot nation: more than 110 languages are spoken in the San Francisco Bay Area, 224 languages spoken in Los Angeles, 230 in North Texas, and approximately 138 languages spoken in the borough of Queens, New York.
How many languages other than English are spoken in your part of the homeland security enterprise?
How do homeland security professionals communicate with non-English speaking people who need help learning about prevention, response and recovery? How do those professionals learn to listen to people who — even if they are less than comfortable with English — might have something significant to contribute to the nation’s security?
The U.S. Census Bureau offers an on-line map – called the Language Mapper — to help with a partial answer to one of these questions. You might want to check out the map to see who speaks what in your community.
The 2011 American Community Survey used to generate that map reports more than 20 percent of the U.S. population over 5 years old speak a language other than English at home.
The 2011 Language Mapper shows where people speaking specific languages other than English live, with dots representing how many people speak each of 15 different languages. For each language, the mapper shows the concentration of those who report that they speak English less than “very well,” a measure of English proficiency….
The languages available in the interactive map include Spanish, French, French Creole, Italian, Portuguese, German, Russian, Polish, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Arabic….
Of the 60.6 million people who spoke a language other than English at home in 2011, almost two-thirds (37.6 million) spoke Spanish.
Reflecting the overall trend, the percentage speaking Spanish at home grew from 12.0 percent in 2005 to 12.9 percent in 2011….
The recent increase in non-English speakers continues a trend dating back three decades. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of people speaking a language other than English climbed 158 percent, compared with 38 percent for the overall population 5 and older. The seven-fold increase in Vietnamese speakers was the highest percentage jump among 17 of the most common languages, while Spanish speakers posted the largest numerical gain (25.9 million). In contrast, the number speaking Italian, German, Polish, Yiddish and Greek declined over the period….
- In addition to English and Spanish, there were six languages in 2011 spoken at home by at least 1 million people: Chinese (2.9 million), Tagalog (1.6 million), Vietnamese (1.4 million), French (1.3 million), German (1.1 million) and Korean (1.1 million).
- The prevalence of people speaking non-English languages at home varied widely across states, from 44 percent of the population in California to 2 percent in West Virginia.
- Laredo, Texas, led all metro areas with 92 percent of residents age 5 and older speaking a language other than English at home.
- Metro and micro areas in the West, South and Northeast tended to have higher levels of people speaking non-English languages at home. Those in the Midwest tended to have lower levels, with the exception of Illinois.
- Of Spanish speakers, 45 percent of foreign-born naturalized citizens spoke English “very well” compared with 23 percent of foreign-born noncitizens. Those who were native-born, had at least a bachelor’s degree or were not in poverty were more likely to speak English “very well.”
- Eighty percent or more of French and German speakers spoke English “very well.” In contrast, less than 50 percent of those who spoke Korean, Chinese or Vietnamese spoke English “very well”. The rate for Spanish speakers was 56 percent.
So how many languages are spoken in the US?
No one is quite sure.
According to Ethnologue
The number of individual languages listed for United States is 226. Of these, 214 are living and 12 are extinct. Of the living languages, 4 are institutional, 6 are developing, 2 are vigorous, 62 are in trouble, and 140 are dying.
(For intriguing details about the living US languages, see the link here.)
The US Census Bureau says there are “382 language categories of single languages or language families [representing]… the most commonly spoken language other than English at home.”
If English is the de facto official language of homeland security, I wonder what risks that creates for our prevention and response efforts.
I don’t know because I never thought about this before seeing the Language Mapper.
Ready.gov offers its information in a dozen languages. Plus English.
Well done, DHS.