Diversity Spoken in 39 Languages
June 16, 2004
By Geoffrey Mohan and Ann M. Simmons.,
LATimes Staff Writers
New maps show a
part of Bellflower is one of the nation's most linguistically varied.
On a given day at Pho Pioneer restaurant in Artesia, Linda Tran manages
Korean-speaking workers who serve the cuisine of her native Vietnam to clients
speaking Gujarati, Tagalog or Spanish.
Those are just the languages Tran, manager of the eatery, can count.
"It's so diverse here, in such a small clump," said Tran, the daughter of
Vietnamese immigrants. "I don't think you would be able to find this anywhere
else in the country."
A newly released graphic depiction of the nation's vast linguistic complexity
shows Tran is close to correct. A set of interactive maps, the combined product
of census data and academic curiosity, shows that a roughly 13-square-mile area
of southern Los Angeles County from North Long Beach to Bellflower to Artesia is
among the most linguistically varied swaths of territory in the nation.
The Census Bureau tracks the 40 most commonly spoken languages in the United
States. Thirty-nine are in this swath of land defined by the 605 and 710
freeways - English and Spanish, of course, but also a polyglot that includes
Portuguese and Dutch, Navajo and Khmer. A few other spots in Los Angeles County,
including some around major universities and medical centers, rival the
linguistic density of this triangle; nowhere else in the nation quite compares.
The maps and tables were the product of a year's work sparked by a question,
said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Assn., the
professional group for language and literature professors and graduate students
that conducted the work.
"We really just asked a simple question we didn't have an answer to - who speaks
what language where in the U.S.," Feal said. "We had the data, but we didn't
know what it looked like."
The result is a pixilated view, down to individual ZIP Codes, of 30 of the 40
languages that the census tracks. The language association hopes its website,
http://www.mla.org , will spark
interest from marketers, politicians, schoolchildren, librarians, and anyone
with a computer, curiosity and time.
Those who look will see in the maps a testament to the forces of immigration and
migration. The scramble of squares and rectangles reveals that only America's
remotest mountains, deserts, swamps and lightly populated rural areas are bereft
of any foreign tongue.
California claims the lowest percentage of people who say they speak English at
home - 60.52%, compared with about 82% nationwide. Appalachia, deep Dixie and
parts of the Midwest fall at the other end of the scale. English is spoken
exclusively at home by 96.38% of Mississippians - although not everyone in the
country professes to understand it. Neighboring Alabama is close behind.
In all but a handful of states, Spanish is the predominant second language. But
four states have French or Creole as the next most prevalent language behind
English (Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Louisiana). German is the prevailing
foreign language in the Dakotas and much of Montana, a remnant of 19th century
settlers. Native American languages top the list in Alaska.
Yiddish is concentrated in New York's Brooklyn and the Borscht Belt of the
Catskills, as well as Los Angeles and the retirement communities around Miami.
But although the language may be dying, at least one person in every state
except Wyoming and Alaska reported to the census that it was his or her home
There are limits to what the data say about language in the U.S. The
association's maps are based on the census' long form, which was filled out by
one in six households in 2000. Residents were asked to report the language those
in the household more than 5 years old spoke at home, Feal said. The maps do not
show who speaks multiple languages or indicate the degree of command of English.
Of the 47 million respondents to the long form who reported speaking a language
other than English, 55% said they also spoke English "very well," according to
census figures. Only 7% said they didn't speak it at all.
In Los Angeles County, 83% of the ZIP Codes contain 20 or more languages, and
nearly half have 30 or more, according to a Times analysis. Only one remote ZIP
Code in the Angeles National Forest, with a population of 36, is English-only.
That much does not surprise Dowell Myers, professor of urban planning and
demography at USC. "I find that L.A. County is just as diverse outside the city
as inside the city," Myers said.
"There are two competing stories about L.A.," Myers said. "One is that it's very
segregated and there is a lot of hostility between groups. That's very wrong,
but people want to hold onto it. The other story is that L.A. is diverse, and
people live close together with very little friction."
The data are likely to fuel the perennial contest between New York City and Los
Angeles for most diverse - ZIP Codes now can be compared side-by-side.
A first look at the maps shows the Big Apple, which lacks substantial numbers of
Native American and Southeast Asian language speakers, loses on languages per
Indeed, those who yearn to study multiple languages in the smallest geographic
area need only take the San Gabriel River Freeway or Long Beach Freeway south of
Los Angeles, exit at the Artesia Freeway and travel along Lakewood Boulevard.
From that crossroads to the northeast lies Bellflower's 90706 ZIP Code area,
where 38 languages are spoken. To the southwest, a scattering of Hmong speakers
in the adjacent 90805 ZIP Code brings the language total to 39. The only census
category missing is the catchall "other and unspecified."
U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez, a Democrat, represents all of these language speakers
and more. "The greatest asset is the diversity of the people," she says.
Pioneer Boulevard presents a facade typical of Sanchez's district, where Indian
grocers, restaurant staff, jewelers and clothiers conduct business with
customers who speak Gujarati, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Urdu.
Crowding in near the South Asian outlets are businesses owned by immigrants from
Vietnam, China, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines - Chinese dumpling houses
and Japanese tofu cafes, Vietnamese nail salons and Korean church supplies.
Virtually everywhere, Spanish is spoken.
Descendants of Portuguese and Dutch immigrants, among the earliest settlers in
Artesia, still define their presence with a few small bakeries and cafes.
At least 53 languages are spoken in the 30 schools of the ABC Unified School
District, which covers Artesia, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens and parts of Lakewood
and Norwalk, according to school board member Mark Pulido. Minority ethnic
groups make up 88% of the district population, according to board figures.
"Artesia was always a multicultural community, although we didn't call it such,
and I don't know if the community recognized it as such," said Veronica
Bloomfield, president of the Artesia Historical Society, who has spent all of
her 65 years in the city. "It's a microcosm of the United States, where there
has been just waves of immigrants coming into