Orange County and the United Languages of America

by John Bascombe on Thursday, December 04, 2014

US Official Language

The US is a multi-lingual country with no official national language, a place where according to the 2011 census report, 20% of the people speak a language other than English at home.  In California that number is 44%. Orange County, located just south of LA, is California’s second most densely populated county, a place that reflects changing language trends across the country.

Legions of TV fans around the world recognize the sunny county from the Fox series The O.C. (2003-2007) which aired in over 50 countries and spawned an anxious flurry of copy shows during the mid 2010’s with promising titles such as The Real Housewives of Orange County, and Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. Despite the excited use of the word “real”, the shows offered a decidedly un-diverse on-screen image of the county compared to statistics from the latest census report.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of Orange County’s founding way back when a real estate boom in Southern California saw new towns established and communities expand all over the area. It had been covered by vast ranchlands just a few decades earlier. Towns continued growing, but no clearly defined urban center ever developed, and even today the county with over 3 million residents living inside a 790 square mile boundary still reflects its past as a region of many smaller communities that grew together over time within the shadows of Los Angeles. Famous attractions here include Disneyland and Huntington “Surf City USA” Beach.

Orange County is known as a place of staunchly conservative political views which ironically include anti-immigration attitudes; according to a report from the University of Southern California the county scored relatively high on a ranking that analyzed immigrant integration in terms of civic engagement, economic trajectory and other indicators. Despite the famous attitude, immigrants now make up 30% of the population, that’s nearly 1 million people, and as the population has diversified its political leanings have too. Over half of the children here have at least one parent who is from another country.

Half a million Asian American residents live in the county, a community that grew by 41% between 2000 and 2010, making it the third largest Asian American population in America. The county’s Little Saigon area is the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. Bangladeshi residents make up the county’s fastest growing community which grew by 118% during the same decade, followed by Fijans up 108%.

Nearly half of the residents speak a language other than English at home, and over half of these speak Spanish. Over 1 million residents are Latino. Spanish is nothing new here; the region had once belonged to the King of Spain and then to Mexico until 1848, when it was ceded to the US after the end of the Mexican War. California’s original constitution stipulated that “laws and provisions would be published in English and Spanish”. 

The OC Weekly recently published an informative and interactive albeit kind of confusing language map (there are a lot of different colors and if they’re shaded different they mean different things) of Orange County that shows the second most spoken languages in each of the county’s zip codes. The language that appears in most zip codes is unsurprisingly Spanish, followed by Vietnamese, followed by, perhaps most interestingly, English. English is the second most spoken language in 14 Orange County zip codes, and in some zip codes it’s even third behind Spanish and Vietnamese. In most of the zip codes in the county’s capital Santa Ana, over 80% of the residents speak Spanish as their primary language. Chinese, Korean, Persian, and Russian are also all on the map. 40,000 households speak Tagalog.

So how does all this reflect what’s happening in the rest of the country?

Languages in The US

According a 2013 US census report on language, eight languages including Russian and Persian more than doubled in usage nationwide between 1980 and 2010. Vietnamese increased by 599%. There were 24.9 million more Spanish speakers.  The report explained that “Fueled by both long-term historic immigration patterns and more recent ones, the country’s language diversity has increased over the past few decades”.

The numbers frighten some pro-English-only observers. Many say that the increase in rich language diversity compromises communication among Americans. The fears have inspired some of the most active to ban together to create citizens’ actions groups such as U.S. English, Inc. in attempts to assure the passage of English as the official language of the United States. 31 of the 50 states have amended their state constitutions to recognize English as the official language, California is one of them; if the hope was to discourage foreign language use there, the plan seems to be failing.  Ironically, amending the US constitution to define English only as the official national language could eliminate programs designed to help non-English speaking residents learn English, in other words English only initiatives could end up in a certain way promoting the use of other languages. Groups like The American Civil Liberties Union oppose establishing English as an official language, noting that these types of laws compromise the rights of non-English speaking communities. 

 Anyone thinking that legal measures need to be taken to preserve English use in America may also want to keep in mind conclusions from the latest US census report, which show that even as families increasingly speak languages other than English at home, the percentage of Americans who report that they speak English well has remained steady.

The debate over whether or not English should be somehow enforced as America’s only language goes back to the first few years of the country’s founding.

In 1780, during the middle of the American Revolution which sought independence from Britain, a time when the US was establishing itself as a nation, future president John Adams attempted to found an official English Academy but the idea was rejected as it was considered undemocratic.

As early as 1751, Benjamin Franklin complained about the Germans, wondering why “should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs…” Needless to say, widespread use of German anywhere in the US was phased out pretty much on its own without much official legislation (I say much because there was actually some legislation: following World War I, some English-only laws were passed in the Midwest to keep people from speaking German, laws that the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional in 1923).

People have spoken a rich variety of languages in America since long before the drafting of the US constitution (according to Marriam-Webster, before 1492, people spoke over 300 languages north of Mexico). Places like Orange County suggest that language use will continue to diversify with or without laws attempting to guarantee the use of the language of the country America successfully gained independence from over 200 years ago. And that’s a closer look at the real Orange County, a closer look at the united languages of America.


Keywords: us official language,us national language,spanish in the us,spanish in america,spanish in the united states,languages in the us,languages of america,us languages

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