Wednesday, March 09, 2005

English First; Spanish Second

Spanish is now the number two language, behind English, in the Pittsburgh area. (The linked Trib article does not specify if "English" also includes Pittsburghese.) This is quite a surprise, considering that, historically, Spanish speaking immigrants never came to southwestern Pennsylvania in great numbers. Pittsburgh has had waves of ethic immigration over its 246 year history. The city was primarily settled by Scots-Irish families, followed by waves of English and German immigrants. Many Irish and Italians also came to the area by the end of the nineteenth century. After that, many eastern European immigrants, mostly Polish, arrived in Pittsburgh. There really has not been a single dominant ethnic immigrant group since World War II, though the article points out that there was a wave of Soviet Jews who left the USSR about 25 years ago. And based on my own observations during the last twenty years, I would say that many of our present-day foreign-born Pittsburghers came from eastern and southern Asia.

Although Chinese (though not Hindi) is on the list of local languages, this is still a predominantly European-descended bunch of people. No surprise, then, to see languages such as Italian and German on the list (forgive me for indulging in an ethnic stereotype, but the best pizza in town is made by people who came from Italy). And the presence of German companies such as Bayer has contributed to a steady influx of professionals from Germany. (Many of my ancestors spoke German at home, went to churches with services in German, worked and drank in German saloons, and wrote correspondence in German script -- all while living in Pittsburgh.) French, however, is a surprise. There has never been what would be called a "French community" around town. There are or have been German, Irish, Italian and Polish neighborhoods (even a small "Chinatown" section at the edge of downtown), but French has never really stood out as a widely spoken language or as an ethnicity in this city.

Greek is also in the top ten. Many Greeks also came to the area post-WWII, and have formed a very close knit community like the Irish, Germans or Poles once did. There are several thriving Greek churches in the area, and some of my neighbors were born in Greece, or are the children of Greek immigrants.

With all of these many and varied ethnic and linguistic groups in the Pittsburgh area, how did the Spanish language attain the number two ranking? The answer must be the same that explains why so many from far away lands such as China and India have been coming here: academics. The livelihoods of most Asian immigrants are concentrated primarily on the fields of medicine and technology. Spanish speakers, mainly from Latin America, are attracted to the city by the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Latin American Studies. This program was started over forty years ago when there was not much of a Spanish speaking element in the local mix. A few years later, Pitt's library added a Latin American literature collection that has grown continually over time. This is a real-life example of "if you build it, they will come". And the "they" who came are well-educated, bilingual folks whose ranks include a number of well-known, high-profile visiting professors from many Latin American countries. This is not an area that needs to fear the loss of English as its first language, as seems to be happening in parts of the southwestern U.S., particularly California. If anything, the ascendancy of the Spanish language in Pittsburgh is a welcome addition to the local character.

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