Immigrant Languages of Wisconsin

Immigrants to Wisconsin have spoken many different languages and dialects. In order to understand the potential effects of these immigrant languages on the development of contemporary varieties of Wisconsin English, we need to study the social situation and language use patterns of these immigrant groups and their descendants.

For more specific information on these languages and their populations, see the following:

Vast numbers of Wisconsinites have and still do live their lives in languages other than English. Today, most of the older immigrant languages (such as Polish, German, Dutch, Czech, and Icelandic) are less frequently spoken, while Native languages of Wisconsin (such as Ho-Chunk or Ojibwe) are the focus of intense revitalize efforts, and new languages (such as Hmong and Spanish) arrived with recent immigrant populations.

Consider the changes to Wisconsin’s “ethnic landscape” by comparing the famous (although problematic – the map doesn’t give the distribution of Wisconsin’s Native communities at the time) Hill map, created by University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist George W. Hill in 1941:

Hill Map of the national roots of people of Wisconsin 1941

Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, image ID WHi-62099

Now consider the percentage of people who reported in 2000 to the census that they spoke some language other than English at home:

percentage people speaking languages other than English at hom 2000

Data from the American Community Survey 2006-10, five-year estimates, table DP02, “Selected Social Characteristics in the United States.” Purnell, Thomas. WISCONSIN TALK. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.

Different languages are spoken in different parts of the state, as shown by the following maps showing reported home language use of German or Norwegian ("Other Indo-European Languages"); Spanish; Hmong, Japanese or Thai ("Asian and Pacific Islander Languages"); and a Native American language or Finnish ("Other Languages"), as of the 2000 census.

Location of speakers of Spanish and other Indo-European languages in Wisconsin as of 2000
Location of speakers of Hmong, Thai, Japanese, Native American Languages and Finnish in Wisconsin as of 2000

Data from the American Community Survey 2006-10, five-year estimates, table DP02, “Selected Social Characteristics in the United States.” Purnell, Thomas. WISCONSIN TALK. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.

Now let’s zoom in to just the southeastern corner of the state and look at the size of the non-English-speaking population as well as the distribution of which languages are represented within that population.

Data from the American Community Survey, 2006-10, five-year estimates, table DP02, "Selected Social Characteristics in the United States." Purnell, Thomas. WISCONSIN TALK. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.

You can see that Spanish speakers are heavily represented in these mostly urban counties, while “other Indo-European" languages and some newer ones make up a considerable part of the total, especially in suburban Waukesha County. Speakers of Asian and Pacific Islander languages are often associated with western and central Wisconsin, but you can see here that many speakers of these languages have moved to the southeast of the state as well.

Additional Maps

Languages Spoken at Home in Wisconsin, 2000
This paper dot density map shows the distribution of selected languages spoken at home in Wisconsin according to the 2000 US Census and reflects the state's linguistic diversity.

Distribution of Selected Languages Spoken at Home in Southwestern and Northern Wisconsin, 2000
Focusing on different regions of the state, these maps show the distribution of German, Hmong, Native American, Scandinavian, and Spanish languages spoken at home in Southwestern and Northern Wisconsin, using data from the 2000 US Census.

Distribution of Selected Languages Spoken at Home in Southeastern Wisconsin, 2000
These maps show the distribution of German, Hmong, Native American, Scandinavian, and Spanish languages spoken at home in Southeastern Wisconsin.

Change in Language Spoken at Home, Marathon and Portage Counties, Wisconsin
This paper map shows changes in the linguistic landscapes of two Wisconsin communities from 1990 to 2000.