Linguistic diversity continues to grow

Linguistic diversity continues to grow

June 1st, 2010 by Perla Trevizo in News

Staff photo by Matt Fields-Johnson/Chattanooga Times Free Press Jean Lau speaks to her seven-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, in Chinese while reading about flower gardens in their home Thursday afternoon. Mrs. Lau is from China and wants her children to grow up knowing the language so she speaks it with them in the home.

Staff photo by Matt Fields-Johnson/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

It hasn't been an easy road for Celina Alvarez and her husband, but they are both determined to do everything in their power so their daughter grows up bilingual.

"My husband and I both decided that we were going to speak Spanish at home so she can speak both languages," Mrs. Alvarez said about her 3-year-old daughter, Jacky.

But because everything in school is in English, Jacky is learning a lot more English than Spanish, she said.

The Alvarezes are among a growing number of people nationwide that speak a language other than English at home.

From 1980 to 2007, the percentage of speakers of non-English languages grew by 140 percent, while the nation's overall population grew by 34 percent, according to data released by the U.S. Census. The figures cover those age five and older.

Of the 281 million people who were over five years old in the United States in 2007, 55.4 million, or 20 percent, reported speaking a language other than English at home.


Number of individuals five years and over spoke a language other than English at home.

Tennessee Total: 328,390

1. Spanish: 183,068 or 56 percent

2. German: 13,804 or 4.2 percent

3. French: 12,935 or 3.91 percent

4. Chinese: 11,729 or 3.6 percent

5. Arabic: 10,264 or 3.1 percent

Georgia Total: 1 million

1. Spanish: 618,233 or 58 percent

2. Korean: 42,326 or 4 percent

3. French: 39,170 or 3.7 percent

4. Vietnamese: 38,420 or 3.6 percent

5. Chinese: 32,213 or 3 percent

Source: U.S. Census

The numbers are much smaller in Georgia and Tennessee, especially in the latter.

Close to 6 percent of those five and older in Tennessee and 12 percent in Georgia spoke a language other than English at home from 2006 through 2008, census data shows.

The top language spoken other than English nationwide and in both states is Spanish. Other languages include German, French, Chinese and Arabic in Tennessee and Korean, French, Vietnamese and Chinese in Georgia.

For Doug Bachtel, a University of Georgia professor and demographer, those numbers signify jobs.

"Obviously, the people who speak a language other than English have moved here from somewhere," he said. "One of the things with migration is that the migrants who are moving, most of them move for jobs. It signifies, to me, a diversified economy that you are attracting people from all sort of different places."

And the different economies is what explains the disparity between Georgia and Tennessee, he said.

"Georgia is one of fastest-growing states in the nation and one of the reasons is because we have these job opportunities," he said. "Tennessee doesn't rank as high as Georgia for that, so people from elsewhere wouldn't move to Tennessee with the sheer numbers that Georgia has gotten."

In trying to raise bilingual children, Jean Lau and her husband Daniel always speak to their children in Chinese at home, except when they want to be sure they make their point across, said Mrs. Lau. At that point, she uses English.

So when the Lau children hear their parents call their full names in English instead of their Chinese nicknames, they know they are in trouble.

"If we talk about our culture, our heritage, using Chinese, I think eventually the children will learn to appreciate the efforts we've made," said Mrs. Lau, who came to the United States in 1991 and now lives in Chattanooga.

For Jonathan Lau, 15, and his sister Christine, 13, speaking Chinese is very important.

Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Celina Alvarez tickles her 3-year-old daughter, Jacky, at their home in Dalton, Ga. Mrs. Alvarez is the general manager for the Quality Inn and Ramada in Dalton and speaks English for her work. She speaks Spanish with her family because she believes it is important to keep their Mexican origin and Spanish language roots strong.

Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

"We know that China has become a major global player in the world, politically and economically, so we feel by keeping our Chinese, in the future, we'll have some sort of advantage over other people who only speak one language," said the McCallie School ninth grader.

The three siblings, including Elizabeth, 7, also attend a community-based Chinese school on Sundays, where Mrs. Lau is a teacher, to reinforce the language.

For Mrs. Alvarez, culture is part of the reason for wanting Jacky to be bilingual.

"I want my daughter to be Latina, I want her to like her culture," said Mrs. Alvarez who migrated from Mexico 10 years ago and is the general manager for the Quality Inn and Ramada in Dalton.

The other reason, she said, is because a bilingual person has a lot more opportunities.

"There's a big economic incentive for the bilingual speaker, they can bridge both worlds and have a foot in both worlds," said Dr. Bachtel. "It just makes economic sense."


* Among people who spoke a language other than English at home, a majority reported speaking English "very well."

* Among Spanish-speakers, nearly as many were native-born as foreign-born.

* The largest group of English-only speakers were age 41 to 64.

* After English and Spanish, Chinese was the language most commonly spoken at home.

Source: Language Use in the United States: 2007, U.S. Census