Dialect Maps, Race and Immigration

News items are useful for teaching but they can sometimes provoke new research investigations. For example

I recently found this item on my Facebook newsfeed (I created an interest page and jammed together all of the major news and national group organizations into a single feed; it’s fairly efficient most of the time). It illustrates the rough contours of the various dialects of English spoken around the US, and brought to mind my previous post on race, immigration and region and linguistic code-switching.

It was interesting to me that the author, Rick Aschmann, was not a social scientist; he claims that this is his hobby! . Given my training, my impulse was to find more sources that might match or improve upon Mr. Ashmann’s assessment. A hobby is one thing, doing it from scholarly expertise is another. Further, I wound up turning this into a social science exercise.

I poked around on the web to see if there were more scientifically based treatments of his accent mapping. In my quick check, it looks like this was quite the hot topic in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard by William Labov and associates (Penn) and Bert Vaux (Harvard then, currently at King’s College)  seemed to garner the quickest hits for dialect mapping. Interestingly there are a lot of different ways in which dialects are identified and it’s fairly challenging to determine the boundaries of where one dialect ends and another begins. Some areas, according to Aschmann, contain a wide range of dialects, chief among these being Pennsylvania.

But as the other studies and their accompanying maps show, there are different ways of classifying dialects which consequently changes the location of the boundaries. Here is Labov’s version of the same area:

This is important sociologically on two different but related grounds. One is race. While I don’t have systematic evidence for this (that would be an empirical linguistic studies project I think), members of different racial groups might share some dialect patterns in common while at the same time share patterns across racial groups in the same area. So we might ask: to the extent that African Americans are more populous in the South, to what extent are Southern dialects a function of African Americans pronouncing English, and to what extent is it defined by Southern whites pronouncing English? Are regional dialects shared equally across racial groups and do they in some ways reveal commonalities between racial groups or persistent distance? For instance, if two African American families, one with a “Northern” dialect and one with a “South Midland” dialect arrived in Atlanta looking for work, would a white employer’s judgment be affected by the dialect in speech?

The second is immigrant and second-generation adaptation. Immigrants these days are usually drawn more from non-English-dominant environments. How might they relate to the linguistic differences in the environments in which they migrate? Since they were socialized in non-English environments, we would expect that they would have an evident disadvantage in trying to adapt to the local dialect. However, their children might not have this hurdle. So what might the English dialect of the second-generation sound like based on region? Let’s take second-generation Korean Americans (SGKA for short) for example. The ones in California where a large fraction of SGKAs reside might exhibit a Western dialect whereas the ones in Philadelphia and New York might pick up an Atlantic Midland or Greater New York City dialect. This too is complicated by the degree to which their linguistic exposure at home is entirely in the native language of their immigrant parents or that amazing mashup we call Konglish.

So I started to think about whether dialect discrimination might also play a role in unequal job hirings. Do employers hire those who sound like them over whether someone looks like them. Sociologists note that there is often a lot of subjectivity in job placement, and in many cases identically-skilled candidates might be differentiated on grounds like “fit” etc. So I hypothesized a few possibilities on what might happen in an experiment that tries to determine dialect or racial discrimination:

-H0: Irrelevant. Hiring a worker is completely unaffected by hearing dialect differences. This is what social scientists call the null hypothesis.

-H1: If race matters more, differences in dialect will not affect hiring of a worker.

-H2: If regional dialect matters more, proximal dialect similarity to the employer will favor one worker over another.

If I could imagine this experiment, you would need 4 types of applicants (all with equivalent credentials so basically they are all the same on paper), two who are white, two who are black. One interviewee from each race exhibits the “Inland South” accent and one interviewee from each race has the “Atlantic Midland” dialect. We need employers that meet the same criteria: 1 set who are white with an Inland South dialect, 1 set of white employers with an Atlantic Midland dialect. Ideally, we would have African American employers in both of these categories too, but they may be harder to find. Since dialects are a function of location, the interviewees need to visit these employers from both parts of the country. If we had a lot of funding, we could replicate this experiment and bring in second-generation Asian and Latino Americans with these same dialects to determine racial versus dialect bias. This is something like an audit study which has been done several times in demonstrating subjective evaluations in hiring decisions.

A study like this could help reveal new complexities in our diversifying environment.

Faith and Ethnicity in West, TX

Despite nine years in residence here in central TX, I still feel like a Philadelphian exploring this new place. It’s probably why I remain fascinated by the many sociological and demographic curiosities here. In a recent post I mentioned some of the similarities between second-generation Americans and young white central Texans today. Both struggle with adapting and conforming to the Anglo northern upper class mainstream, and this is evidenced by their efforts at code-switching and minimizing any hint of an accent that might suggest southern provincialism. These surprising similarities help me to better contextualize the kinds of patterns I see among Asian Americans by looking at other Americans by way of analogy.

The recent explosion at a fertilizer plant in West TX (about 20 miles north of Waco) brought central TX back to my mind. Nothing would have prepared any of us for the strange alignment in time between the Boston Marathon bombing (and for those who are into other coincidences in time, note that 66 years earlier on nearly the same day (April 16, 1947 compared to April 17, 2013), over 580 people perished in an industrial explosion in Texas City with thousands more injured. And, 20 years ago, in Elk TX, just 9 miles outside of Waco, the standoff between a small religious group called the Branch Davidians and the combined forces of the ATF Bureau and FBI ended, leaving 86 dead (including 76 adults and children of that religious group).

As I wrote some of this, a memorial service was taking place at my university’s basketball auditorium to honor the first responders who perished in their efforts to bring others to safety. The death toll brings to mind some important demographic realities as one friend of mine mentioned in Facebook. He wrote:

Perspective: West only has a population of 2,800. 15 or more people were killed with more than 160 injured. If something of the same magnitude happened in the metropolitan population Waco, the count would have been 1,255 dead, and 13,390 injured, which is almost unimaginable. But I imagine that is just how those in West feel now. The numbers may sound small compared to some disasters, but in perspective, it is unbelievable.

Indeed. The lives lost as a proportion of the population of the affected area changes the significance of the impact. In reflecting on this incident I thought about the ethnic population of West. Numerous friends on Facebook changed their background images to the current Czech flag to show solidarity with the people there like the image shown above. If you drive through the city there’s clearly a strong Czech influence at least in name’s like Czech Bakery, Czech Inn, Czech Stop. In fact my wife and I attended the annual WestFest which not surprisingly featured a great deal of Czech culture:

  According to the 2009 Census information, Czech Americans number around 1.9 million about the number of Korean Americans depending on whether one includes anyone with some Korean heritage (1.7 million) or exclusively Korean heritage (1.4 million). Like many ethnic groups in the US, historical migration and settlement resulted in specific geographic concentrations of Czechs. Given the importance of farming as a part of the Czech identity, it comes as no surprise that the largest numerical presence is in Texas where affordable land was plentiful. And as it turns out, West contains the largest concentration of Czechs in the US at about 41 percent.

But apart from this figure, the Czech people of West are not otherwise remarkable demographically. Today’s immigrant Czechs reside in other communities such as Massaryktown, FL, and Mifflinville, PA. The highest percentage of Czechs is actually in Nebraska where 5 percent of the state claims this heritage. Texas by contrast is 0.5 percent Czech. It is perhaps this ordinariness that makes this extraordinary tragedy stand out as it does.

Throughout the memorial family and other loved ones often spoke of the faith of the first responders. This was notable to me when I discovered that religion is not a significant feature in today’s Czech Republic. According to the Pew study of religion around the world, 76 percent of Czechs are unaffiliated, and another 23 percent are Christian.

Given the size of the population, we cannot estimate the religious demography of Czech Americans but it’s a fair guess that they are much more religious, and more Christian than their counterparts in the old country. This difference may be a recent trend but it may also reflect the pro-Christian migration to the US that historians and sociologists have pointed out. Perhaps too, the heightened religious sensibilities of Texans motivate some Czechs to consider religion more intentionally than they might otherwise. I wonder too if in some way being part of a Czech community helps preserve ethnicity in the way that second-generation Korean and Chinese Protestants hold on to their ethnicity through a faith community. Who knows, perhaps what we see in the Czech religious communities might reflect what we will see among Asian American Christians a few generations later.

Central Texas continues to have these surprises, and I become aware of them through events both tragic and inspiring. For those who would still like to send aid and support to the community, click on this page for a list of organizations that are receiving donations and other support for the people of West, TX.

Texans and Second-Generation Code Switching

In a recent post I shared some reflections on the importance of second-generation Asian American research. While attending this conference I had the privilege of spending time getting to know my new colleagues who shared similar research interests. As much as scholarship has an autobiographical influence, it’s not surprising that members of the immigrant and second-generation share an interest in second-generation outcomes. In conversation over coffee or massive Korean meals, I was reminded of the challenges that many professors face who did not grow up in the US. While gifted in their particular profession, a common dilemma that many face is language accessibility. We all know that we make distinctions between people who “speak like me” or who “speak good English.” It’s a subtle acknowledgment that there is a dominant culture embodied not only in the words and syntax but in the manner of speech itself. It’s also a way of acknowledging embeddedness in a linguistic community. In most situations, if you’re part of a community that speaks the language and tone of the dominant culture, you will likely have little problem experiencing otherness from most people you encounter on a day-to-day basis. For many immigrants and their children, the second-generation, this is unlikely. Most immigrants today do not come from English-speaking nations and their access to this language varies by education and personal skill. So when I think about many of my foreign-born research-university colleagues I am struck by the hurdles they must overcome to do their job well. It’s not enough that they can analyze statistical data or interpret the activity of a local community, they have to articulate this in their secondary language both on paper and in person. Will they be discriminated against if someone reading or listening identifies non-native language capacity? The process of getting tenure and promotion is anxiety-ridden already; imagine adding on language access and you might have a slight understanding of what life is like for faculty who are immigrants. 

Language access is less likely a problem for the second-generation since most of their experience has been in the US. They have been exposed to media, teachers, and their multigenerational peers to make sense of “proper English.” They are also aware that their parents continually struggle with grammar and syntax in ways that native speakers take for granted. For some second-geners, they resort to limiting their own language ability to more effectively communicate with their immigrant elders and peers. This mix of foreign and native words along with a restructured grammar and syntax is known variously as “Spanglish” “Konglish” “Chinglish” and the like. For the second-generation, they have the challenge of code switching, the practice of adapting one’s language and behavior to one’s specific context. With their immigrant community they speak in another language or in some hybrid form as I just mentioned. National Public Radio for example has a post on several different popular examples of how code-switching works, and another on how it sounds in our popular culture.

What code-switching also reveals is the tacit awareness that the dominant culture enforces its expectations on our language ability and it places a kind of cognitive bind on those who navigate multiple linguistic environments. I suspect that for many in the second-generation, the pull is to conform, which can (but not always) weaken language ties to their ethnic culture. In order to fit in with the dominant group, their capacity to articulate the language most familiar to their immigrant community drifts from high fluency to near incoherence. Think about your second-generation friends and how many of them are very fluent in the language preferred by their immigrant parents, and how many of them code-switch using a hybrid of English and another language. Here’s an example of Indonesian, French and English code-switching:

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And here’s an example of English and Japanese (apparently a class project that’s garnered over 13,000 views!):

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It’s not only second-generation Americans that deal with linguistic marginalization from the mainstream. Scholars and activists have been well aware that even native-speakers have varying acceptability to the dominant group based on an audible accent. Some people “sound black” or “sound hick,” and in these cases, discrimination also rears its ugly head. Not surprisingly, in some multigenerational American families that experience potential upward mobility, successive generations sound less and less like the community from which they originate, and more and more like the intonations that dominate our media. This has been documented in a study of the central Texas accent, as narrated in this NPR story.

As Texans gain more influence in American society, the desire for respectability entails a weakening of the central Texas accent. Here again we see this inescapable pull toward conforming to the dominant group that clearly sounds different from them. In this way, it’s interesting to observe how marginal multigenerational groups function similarly to second-generation groups that grapple with language in their journey toward upward mobility.

Update 7/11/2013: the sociology website The Society Pages included this post abut the archiving of the German Texas accent which is slowly fading out.

A new look at the second-generation Korean American and Canadian experience


Last weekend I had the opportunity to participate in another small conference similar to the JSPS back in January. While the JSPS showcased the latest scientific discoveries by alums of the program, this was a more focused conference on a very particular population: second-generation Korean Americans (SGKAs).

For the Korean American community, now numbering 1.3 million, the experience in the US remains a largely new one to some extent. Census reports suggest that nearly 80% of Korean Americans are foreign-born. This figure is somewhat misleading however since it bundles together anyone who was born outside the US into a single category. Scholars of immigration however point out that there’s a big difference between arriving in the US prior to age 12 and arriving when one is a good bit older. The latter group is described as the “1.5 generation” and some scholars, including me, argue that the 1.5 are somewhat similar to the 2nd generation in that both groups were socialized in the US from their most formative years.

What’s particularly important about the second-generation is that they are the first in their families to experience America as their native home; while their parents’ memories of their youth originate in other countries, the second generation will recall growing up in a neighborhood in Los Angeles, Queens, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Second, since most of today’s immigrants appear racially non-white (given their countries of origin), the experiences of the second-generation also entails a minority identity in the conventional sense. How then will these new native-born (or US-raised) minority populations adapt to their surroundings and how will their context respond to their growing presence? Since the story of today’s second-generation begins roughly around 1965, some of the oldest in this cohort are now in their 40s and 50s. With access to survey and interview data, we can learn whether older SGKAs are adapting as well as their other native-born peers.

Conferences about SGKAs then are one example of how some scholars are providing glimpses into this new class of American. Particularly illuminating for me was the inclusion of Korean-Canadian research; it was an important reminder that while the US is still the most preferred destination for immigrants, it is not the only destination for the millions of people who leave their place of origin for better opportunities. Indeed owing to the relatively small size of SGKAs, it makes sense to collaborate and share knowledge across borders. It bears noting too that such conferences are the result of excellent collaboration (Drs. Pyong Gap Min and Samuel Noh were pivotal in this instance), generous support from concerned community members, and judicious use of limited resources.

The conference covered numerous topics which I summarized into four groups (based largely on my notes and memory – apologies to anyone I may have missed or misrepresented).

Social mobility: perhaps one of the central questions about SGKAs is whether the America pathway to upward mobility is realized for the children of Korean immigrants who risked their opportunities in their homeland for a potentially better opportunity here. To that end, Drs. ChangHwan Kim (University of Kansas), Chigon Kim (Wright State U.), Ann Kim (York University), Sou Hyun Jang (CUNY Graduate Center), and Pyong Gap Min (Queens College, CUNY Graduate Center) have investigated SGKAs:

-socioeconomic attainment

-bilingualism as a socioeconomic (dis)advantage

-entrepreneurship and socioeconomic mobility in Canada,

-ethnic and racial concentrations in STEM majors and employment sectors    


Mental health and identity: a lot of studies are now finding unique differences between members of different ethnic and racial groups on physical and mental health outcomes. A growing literature has looked into mental health of various Asian Americans and Asian Canadians, Koreans being one such ethnic subgroup. Drs. Il-Ho Kim (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), Samuel Noh (U. of Toronto, CAMH), Neha Ahmed (U. of Toronto), Marianne Noh (U. Western Ontario), and Nam Soon Song (U. of Toronto) covered:

-Discrimination and mental health

-Identity as a moderator of stress

-Identity formation differences in the US and Canada

-Religious community participation and ethnic identity


Family dynamics: much of the mainstream conversation on Asian Americans focuses on family dynamics as a means of explaining the perceived greater educational and socioeconomic advantages of this racialized collection of ethnic groups. Scholars like Drs. Angie Chung (U. Albany-SUNY) and Miliann Kang (U. Massachusetts-Amherst) have called these perceptions into question in their studies of:

-Gender, birth order, identity and family responsibilities

-Second-generation Korean parenting and stereotypes

These studies are particularly interesting since their interviewees are adult Korean Americans who can articulate their experience growing up in households that supposedly are ultra-disciplined and competitive. How do they interpret their experiences and what do they do when raising their own children?

Social integration: finally, another important avenue of research looks at the degree to which SGKAs and other SG Asian Americans are integrating with society’s main civic and political institutions as well informal relationships. Drs. Dae Young Kim (George Mason U.), Sook Hee Oh (U. of Missouri-Kansas City), and myself fit into this area with the following presentations:

-Racial othering

-Asian ethnic differences in political participation

-Ethnic and religious identity retention, endogamy and group insularity


One guest presentation further stretched my knowledge of the changes taking place in Korea. Dr. Sung Kil Min (Yonsei U.) presented his recent work on foreign-born immigrants in Korea. Migration then is not only North American, it is truly becoming more global as countries like South Korea and Japan bring in non-native workers into their industries and businesses.

Since most of my research interests are in the worlds of racial minorities, this conference was admittedly one of the most refreshing intellectually. It’s interesting how different the dynamics are in such a setting where everyone understands some of the basic assumptions of racial and minority difference. More precise questions come up that push our thinking and hopefully engender better research that reaches large academic audiences and the greater public. While our society tends to lump all Asian groups together, better studies like these are helping to point out that only some characteristics are similar across groups, while many other characteristics are quite unique to each group. For those with ties to a Korean community, be on the lookout for these studies and the scholarly investigators who aim to make their research practical and worthy of consideration.

Since Waco is often lacking in culinary variety, here’s a gratuitous pic of some of the great food in Queens NYC. As a parting comment, I’m grateful to Dr. Min, Dr. Noh and their respective research organizations for including me in this gathering.

Edit 4/12:13 (1:52pm): click here for another short summary of the conference