By on 5.19.14 in Carolina Demographics

In a previous post, I looked at changes in the number and type of non-English languages spoken at home in North Carolina over time. Today, I’m looking at variation in languages spoken across space; that is, how do languages spoken vary across North Carolina counties?

At an initial glance, there is little county-to-county variation. The majority of individuals age 5 and over in each county speak only English at home. Of those that speak another language, Spanish is the most commonly spoken language in every county. It makes for a pretty boring map. However, more interesting patterns emerge when we look at the most commonly spoken language other than English or Spanish.

This interactive map shows the third most commonly spoken language by county according to the 2008-2012 American Community Survey (ACS) data. German is the third most common language in the largest number of counties (30, and is tied with Portuguese in Alleghany County), although it is not the third most common language spoken statewide. Depending on the data set I use, the third most common language is either French or Chinese. French is common in suburban or rural counties, while Chinese appears in the state’s metropolitan regions. Given current population growth trends, these patterns suggest that Chinese is on its way to officially displacing French as North Carolina’s most commonly spoken language after English and Spanish.

Chinese is particularly prevalent in the Triangle region, Winston-Salem, and other urban areas. The largest concentration of Chinese speakers (nearly 8,000) is in Wake County; Mecklenburg has the second largest population of Chinese speakers—just over 5,000—but has even more individuals who speak Vietnamese (almost 6,100). Vietnamese is also commonly spoken in Guilford County, which has the second largest population (nearly 5,000) of Vietnamese speakers.

Additional enclaves of interest include Russian as the third most commonly spoken language in Buncombe and McDowell counties, and pockets of Hmong speakers in Burke, Catawba, Iredell, and Alexander, as well as Stanly and Anson counties.

While looking at this patchwork of languages, it is important to keep in mind that, in many cases, these are small pockets of language speakers. The “English Only” tab shows the proportion of individuals 5 and over in a county that speak only English. This proportion varies from a low of 81% in Lee County to a high of 99% in Bertie County. Among those that speak a language other than English at home, the majority speak Spanish (shown in the “Spanish” tab on the graphic). The proportion of individuals 5 and over speaking Spanish varies from a low of 0.8% in Bertie County to 18% in Duplin County.

This analysis was inspired by a series of state-by-state maps produced by Ben Blatt at Slate.

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