Phi Beta Cons

Culturally Correct Cartography

The Modern Language Association has rolled out a new device to persuade Americans of their lack of peoplehood. A recently revamped, interactive “Language Map” displays state-by-state, county-by-county, and zip-code-by-zip-code, answers to the census question, “Does this person speak a language other than English at home?” All the user need do is plug in a language–there are 300 to choose from–and select a location. A map then appears, say a state divided into counties, with the counties distinguished by a color code indicating the percentage of various language speakers located therein.
The map design contains elements that could mislead the unwary about the degree of America’s linguistic fragmentation. The color code, for example, is not used consistently language by language. With respect to English speakers, the dark red indicating the highest degree of concentration only kicks in when the level reaches 94.11%. For Spanish speakers it does so at 61.88%. For Greek speakers at 0.678%.
The map will tell you, if you care to press for “more detailed information”, how many of these foreign language speakers also speak English well–a fact which changes initial impressions considerably. At first glance, my home town of Princeton, New Jersey has 14.03% of its population listed as foreign language speakers–quite counterintuitive to a resident. But only about a fourth of these admit to not speaking English well, or to not speaking it at all. The figures for Los Angeles County suggest that 57.83% of the population aren’t English speakers. Yet upon searching through “the details,” it turns out that the figure is actually about 19%.
Let’s hope that high-school students doing their prescribed multiculturalism research pay close attention.

Stephen H. Balch was the founding president of the National Association of Scholars. In 2007 he received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush.

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