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14 Language Facts from the U.S. Census Bureau

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Since 1890, the U.S. Census has asked various questions about the languages people speak. Until 1980, the questions were sometimes confusing and they were directed only to those who didn’t speak any English or were born in a foreign country. With the 1980 census, a three-part question was adopted that applied to everyone, giving a more complete picture of language in the U.S. The first part of the question asks if a person speaks a language other than English at home. If the answer to the first part is yes, the second part asks what the other language is. The third part asks how well the person speaks English: “very well,” “well,” “not well,” or “not at all.”

The language questions are now asked every year on the American Community Survey. This month, the Census Bureau released its report on the 2011 survey. Here are 14 interesting facts about language in the U.S. 

1. Over 300 languages are spoken in the U.S. For purposes of analysis they are categorized into 39 groups (e.g., Slavic languages besides Russian, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian are under “Other Slavic Languages.” Indian languages besides Hindi, Gujarati, and Urdu are under “Other Indic Languages.”)

2. Of the population 5 years and older, 21 percent speak another language at home. Of those, 62 percent speak Spanish. Of those Spanish speakers, 56 percent speak English “very well.”

3. From 2005 to 2011 the percentage of Spanish speakers increased, while those who spoke English less than “very well” decreased. There are more Spanish speakers, and also more Spanish speakers who are fluent in English.

4. While the language with the biggest increase in numbers of speakers since 1980 is Spanish, Vietnamese has had the biggest percentage increase. There are now almost 7 times the number of Vietnamese speakers there were in 1980.

5. There were other large increases over the same period for Russian, Persian, Chinese, Korean, and Tagalog.

6. At the same time, the number of Italian, Yiddish, Polish, German, and Greek speakers decreased.

7. The last 10 years saw a doubling of the number of Hindi speakers, speakers of “Other Indic Languages” (such as Punjabi, Bengali, and Marathi), speakers of “Other Asian” Languages” (such as Malayalam, Telugu, and Tamil), and speakers of African Languages (such as Amharic, Ibo, Yoruba, and Swahili).

8. Unsurprisingly, those who are young and born here are more likely to speak English “very well.”

9. The metro area with the highest percentage speaking another language is Laredo, Texas.

10. In metro areas with high numbers of speakers of other languages, Spanish is usually the biggest non-English language, except in San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA and Honolulu where the category of “Asian and Pacific Island Language” is bigger, and Farmington, NM where Navajo is biggest.

11. The state with the lowest percentage of those who speak another language is West Virginia (2 percent). The highest is California (44 percent).

12. A full breakdown by individual language (rather than by the 39 categories) is available for the 2006-2008 survey period. It estimates that there are 173 speakers of Gilbertese, 707 speakers of Luxombourgian, and 1649 speakers of Basque.

13. There are an estimated 117,547 speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, 38,494 of whom speak English less than “very well.”

14. There are over 1000 speakers of the Pacific island language Samoan in Alaska. 

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Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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