Lost in Translation: Language Segregation among Hispanics in the United States
"A renewed focus on Hispanic settlement by language background is long overdue. The initial evidence presented here suggests that Hispanics who speak no English end up in neighborhoods apart from their Hispanic counterparts who are proficient English-speakers... We know linguistic gaps leave room for experiences to get lost in translation. But we do not yet know how these gaps correspond to Hispanic settlement; how language segregation trends among Hispanics have changed over time; or whether non-English-speaking Hispanics are left behind in neighborhoods which are also residentially segregated from non-Hispanic groups. The time has come to put segregation research more deliberately in conversation with language scholarship and to translate people’s lived experiences into revealing demographic research."
I am revisiting a tradition of language research which has remained relatively dormant for decades. An edited volume of articles and papers by sociologist Stanley Lieberson (Language Diversity and Language Contact. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1981) proposed a series of promising research projects. I am taking up his challenge; hastened by a class where I was a teaching assistant for Johnathan Rosa — a Stanford professor and scholar of Latino Chicago. He is pushing the boundaries of what we know about the intersections of race/ethnicity, language, and place. Building on the work of Rosa and Lieberson, I think social demographic research can play an important role to advance what we know about where people of different language and racial/ethnic backgrounds live.
I first became casually interested in the question of language segregation within the Hispanic population in 1989. My family had just migrated from central Mexico to the neighborhood of Little Village in Chicago. The predominantly Mexican neighborhood introduced me to bilingual (English-Spanish) education; bilingual as well as English-only-speaking Mexican origin peers; and the most vibrant concentration of Mexican business-owners in the Midwest. I spent a decade as a resident of Little Village; which is the last time I lived in an area where English language skills were useful but not necessary to navigate everyday life. Since then, I have settled in rural, college town, and other urban settings. As I acclimate to new settings, it's hard not to notice my relative proximity to classrooms with a large or growing presence of English language learners and storefronts advertising in Spanish.
I want to translate these experiences into social demographic research. Specifically, I am curious where language segregation is stark and where people who speak English and Spanish live near each other. In order to investigate the issue, I am focusing on Hispanics. Rather than study segregation between Hispanics and non-Hispanics, I want to know what separates communities where Hispanics who speak no English either live apart from or live next door to other Hispanics.
I can't wait to share where this inquiry takes me, especially what language segregation can reveal about how we think patterns of settlement and social stratification operate across local contexts.