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:

Newer Immigrant Languages of Wisconsin

Please refer to Chapters 8 and 9 in Wisconsin Talk for more information about this topic!

This page will focus on research about Hmong and Spanish speakers in Wisconsin, but it should be noted that in recent years, there has also been an influx of speakers of indigenous Central American languages (like Mixtec and Yucatec) who learned Spanish as a second or third language, as well as speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch in Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities.

Hmong speakers in Wisconsin

Hmong immigrants came to the United States via refugee camps in Thailand in the aftermath of war in Southeast Asia. The language the refugees brought with them is called Hmong and has several varieties (e.g., White Hmong and Green Hmong). Speakers of Hmong live in various areas of Wisconsin, typically in large, multigenerational households.

Percentage of people speaking Hmong at home in Wisconsin in 2000

Percentage of people speaking Hmong at home in 2000, by county subdivision. Data from the 2000 U.S. census, table QTP16, “Language spoken at Home,” which is sample data. Percentages are the number of speakers per the total population aged five years and older. 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.

The Hmong population in the United States as a whole is a young population, with a median age of 19.1 years, compared with a much older median age of 36.4 years for the general population. The map below displays the age distribution of Hmong speakers in various counties in Wisconsin, with darker shading in the circles suggesting the percentage of Hmong speakers eighteen and older, and lighter shading indicating the percentage of speakers aged five to seventeen.

Number of people speaking Hmong at home by county

Number of people speaking Hmong at home in 2000, by county. Data from the 2000 U.S. census, table PCT010, “Age of Language Spoken at Home for the Populations 5 Years and Over.” The absence of a symbol for a particular county indicates that no Hmong speakers were reported there in 2000. 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.

Researchers have examined reports from elderly and younger Hmong speakers on their knowledge of English and Hmong, with results suggesting that younger Hmong speakers are more likely than elders to know and use English, and less likely to consider themselves as native speakers of Hmong (Burt 2010). Evidence also suggests that the more bilingual lifestyle of younger Hmong speakers may be influencing how they use English and Hmong, with potential consequences for the maintenance of the language as young speakers may feel more comfortable conversing in English or as if their Hmong is disapproved of by elderly Hmong speakers.

While education in Hmong is hard to come by for younger children, there are several public universities in Wisconsin that have developed courses to support Hmong language and culture, including the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Spanish speakers in Wisconsin

Similar to the Hmong population in Wisconsin, the median age of Wisconsin Hispanics is young (twenty-five years of age) compared to the national average. The Hispanic population has been growing in every county in Wisconsin, with some counties experiencing an over 1,000% increase in Hispanics between 1990-2010:

Change in spanish speaking population by county in Wisconsin 1900-2010

Percentage change in Hispanic population, 1990-2010, by county. Data computed from statistics from the 1900 and 2010 U.S. censuses for Hispanics of “any race.” 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.

Despite the size and steady growth of these communities, Hispanics still represent a vulnerable sector of the state’s population, with 23% of Hispanics seventeen and younger living in poverty and 18% of those between eighteen and sixty-four living in poverty. Hispanic children tend also to be at an educational disadvantage, particularly relative to their non-Hispanic white peers.

Individuals who identify as being “Hispanic” include monolingual English speakers, monolingual Spanish speakers, and bilingual/multilingual individuals whose relative proficiency in Spanish, English and in some cases Latin American indigenous languages varies widely. In 2000, 33% of Hispanics reported speaking only English at home, while 66% reported speaking Spanish and 1% reported speaking a language other than English or Spanish. While the percentage of Hispanics who speak Spanish at home is high, there is a tendency for almost (or over!) half of the Hispanics in a county to report the ability to speak English “very well.”

The graph below displays this, with lighter shading suggesting the percentage of Spanish speakers who reported speaking English “very well” and darker shading suggesting the percentage of Spanish speakers who reported speaking English less than “very well” as a percentage of the total number of Spanish speakers of that particular county.

Number of Spanish speakers plus their ratings of their English

Number of Spanish speakers, 2006-2010, by county. Data from the American Community Survey 2006-7, 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.

Census estimates from 2008 indicate that 66% of Wisconsin’s Hispanics were U.S.-born descendants of first-generation immigrants. There has also been a decrease in the number of immigrants that make up the state’s Hispanic population, indicating that it’s up to the U.S.-born Hispanics to continue using Spanish with their children so that younger generations can take advantage of the cultural, economic, linguistic and cognitive advantages of bilingualism; family, community and institutional support, as well as advocacy for additive bilingualism and bilingual education programs would also help ensure that Hispanic youth can reach their potential as highly proficient users of both Spanish and English.

References and related publications

Pfeifer, Mark E. 2006. Southeast Asian American Data 2006 American Community Survey.

Burt, Susan Meredith. 2009. “Contact Pragmatics: Requests in Wisconsin Hmong.” Journal of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society 1:63–76.

Burt, Susan Meredith. 2010. The Hmong Language in Wisconsin: Language Shift and Pragmatic Change. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen.

Burt, Susan Meredith, and Hua Yang. 2005. “Growing Up Shifting: Immigrant Children, Their Families, and the Schools.” In Language in the Schools: Inte- grating Linguistic Knowledge into K-12 Teaching, edited by Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, 29–40. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hillmer, Paul. 2009. A People’s History of the Hmong. St. Paul: Minnesota His- torical Society Press.

Koltyk, Jo Ann. 1997. New Pioneers in the Heartland: Hmong Life in Wisconsin. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Lo, Fungchatou T. 2001. The Promised Land: Socioeconomic Reality of the Hmong People in Urban America (1976–2000). Bristol, IN: Wyndham Hall Press.

Ratliff, Martha. 1997. “Hmong-Mien Demonstratives and Pattern Persistence.” Mon-Khmer Studies 27:317–28.

Ratliff, Martha. 2010. Hmong-Mien Language History. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

Hein, Jeremy. 2006. Ethnic Origins: The Adaptation of Cambodian and Hmong Refugees in Four American Cities. New York: American Sociological Association.

Fishman, Joshua A. 1991. Reversing Language Shift. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Fishman, Joshua, ed. 2001. Can Threatened Languages Be Saved? Buffalo, NY: Multilingual Matters.

Fishman, Joshua. 2006. “Three Hundred-Plus Years of Heritage Language Education in the United States.” In Developing Minority Language Resources: The Case of Spanish in California, edited by Guadalupe Valdés, Joshua A. Fishman, Rebecca Chávez, and William Pérez, 12–23. Buffalo, NY: Multilingual Matters.

Potowski, Kim, and Richard Cameron, eds. 2007. Spanish in Contact: Policy, Social and Linguistic Inquiries. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Cummins, James. 2001. “Linguistic Interdependence and the Educational Devel- opment of Bilingual Children.” In The New Immigrant and Language, vol. 6 of Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the New Immigration, edited by Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, Carola Suárez-Orozco, and Desirée Qin-Hilliard, 72–101. New York: Routledge.

Cummins, James, and Metro Gulustan. 1974. “Some Effects of Bilingualism on Cognitive Functioning.” In Bilingualism, Biculturalism and Education, edited by Stephen T. Carey, 129–36. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.

Grosjean, François. 1998. “Studying Bilinguals: Methodological and Conceptual Issues.” Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 1 (2): 131–49.

Valdés, Guadalupe. 2005. “Bilingualism, Heritage Language Learners, and SLA Research: Opportunities Lost or Seized?” Modern Language Journal 89 (3):410–26.

Bialystok, Ellen. 2007. “Cognitive Effects of Bilingualism: How Linguistic Expe- rience Leads to Cognitive Change.” International Journal of Bilingual Educa- tion and Bilingualism 10 (3): 210–23.

Bialystok, Ellen, Fergus I. M. Craik, Raymond Klein, and Mythili Viswanathan. 2004. “Bilingualism, Aging, and Cognitive Control: Evidence from the Simon Task.” Psychology and Aging 19 (2): 290–303.

Bialystok, Ellen, Fergus I. M. Craik, and A. C. Ruocco. 2006. “Dual-Modality Monitoring in a Classification Task: The Effects of Bilingualism and Age- ing.” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 59 (11): 1968–83.

Stafford, Catherine. 2013. Spanish in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin Talk: Linguistic Diversity in the Badger State, eds. Thomas Purnell, Eric Raimy and Joseph Salmons, pp. 123-141. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Burt, Susan Meredith. 2013. Hmong in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin Talk: Linguistic Diversity in the Badger State, eds. Thomas Purnell, Eric Raimy and Joseph Salmons, pp. 111-122. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.