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Italian Speakers Quickly Fading From U.S. Language Map

Article submitted by Enrico Costa (@enricosta)

In Massachusetts, 40,000 people communicate in Italian in their everyday life, according to the 2011 American Community Survey. Overall, density of Italian speakers is high in the Northeast region, as our interactive map shows. The Bay State ranks fifth in the country at 0.64 percent. Leading the charge is Connecticut: 1.06 percent of its whole population speaks Italian at home. New York outnumbers all States having almost 190,000 of Italian speakers.

Click on each state to explore numbers and percentages:

By looking at the absolute numbers, it turns out that many Italian speakers live also in the Chicago area, the coastal areas of Florida, and California. Census data confirms a common knowledge in the Italian community. The survey shows large metropolitan areas generally having large proportions of people who speak a language other than English at home because of the economic opportunities in these places or because they act as gateway points of entry into the country.

The Census Bureau has just plotted on an interactive map the latest data. The following picture focuses on Massachusetts and points out some towns in which Italian is still a daily presence thanks to their active communities, such as in Gloucester. Each dot represents approximately 10 people.

Picture from U.S. Census data (1 dot aprox 10 people)

Picture from U.S. Census data (1 dot aprox 10 people)

Census researchers have been surveying the use of language since 1890. Since 2010, surveys have become annual and they also investigate the ability to speak English among language minorities. These statistics allow to read the ongoing social changes in the country. For instance, data shows how demographic growth has driven an analogous increase in non-English speakers throughout the country. Almost one fifth of all people living in the United States does not speak English at home. Since 1980, the overall population has increased by nearly 40 percent, while non-English speakers have soared by 160 percent.

Despite this growth, the future for Dante’s language in the United States is not bright. Its popularity seems to be in trouble.

Figures show the number of people who speak Italian at home has shrunk dramatically during the last three decades. According to census data, they were 1,618,344 in 1980. At that time, Italian was the most popular language after English and Spanish. By 2010, that figure has declined to 725,223. Hence, Italian has lost 55.2 percent of speakers in 30 years, while Chinese, Russian, and Vietnamese have increased at dizzying rates between 300 percent and 600 percent.

The federal government uses data on language use and English-speaking ability to determine which local areas must provide language-assistance services under the Voting Rights Act. These data are also used to allocate educational funds to states to help their schools teach students with lower levels of English proficiency. The percentage of Italian speakers who can speak English very well is 71 percent in Massachusetts — just below the 73 percent nationwide average. Among Chinese or Vietnamese immigrants these data are considerably lower, below 50 percent.

Although the number of Italian speakers is decreasing, the ability to speak English among Italian immigrants is increasing. Reasons for this trend include an aging population and dwindling migrant influxes to the United States, the statistics institute reports. On the other hand, the Italian minority is more and more able to fully participate and interact in civil life.

The interactive table allows you to explore and compare the 2011 survey data about language use and ability to speak English.

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