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Maps on Us
Here, the MLA map displays Chinese in L.A. by Zip Code. Darker colors indicate larger numbers of speakers.

Maps on Us

Maps of L.A.'s languages leave a lot out of the picture.

Kevin Matthews Email KevinMatthews

Deeper trouble lurks in the widespread view of "maps as scientific instruments."

One good look at the Modern Language Association's map of U.S. languages puts silly notions to bed. No, languages are not the property of one nation or another, as if Italian were noises people made when in Italy. And no, bilingualism and multilingualism aren't really so rare in this country, nor confined to cities and coasts. We might have known this from experience. The parents of close childhood friends of mine near Dallas spoke native Tagalog, Spanish, and German at home.

Although the MLA Language Map, an excellent, free online resource that was enhanced last year, offers U.S. Census data from every county and Zip Code, it leaves something to be desired as a linguistic snapshot of a city like Los Angeles. LALA sat down with Denis Cosgrove, a UCLA professor of geography who's studied cartographic representations and their history in Europe and America, to hear what he stressed were first impressions of the MLA project and to understand the shortcomings, avoidable and otherwise, of similar maps.

Densely multilingual L.A. and global cousins such as London are, Cosgrove says, "actually the most hopeful places on the planet," where "people rub along together pretty well, by and large, and do all sorts of great, fascinating things with language, like hybridizing them, and borrowing bits and pieces." L.A.'s overlapping, interlocking, hybridized, Creolized languages make it linguistically interesting, he says, but precisely those residents who have complex backgrounds—a Thai speaker with one Korean parent who uses a few words of Spanish—"don't really appear in these maps."

"What these maps depend on is a kind of purist view of language."

Color Theory

They also "territorialize" language into the compartments of Zip Codes, counties, and so on, and use color schemes known to fool the brain. "So if you move from yellow to green, it's much more impactful than moving from maroon to dark purple," Cosgrove says, alluding to psychological literature on the way people distinguish among colors.

These are just the unavoidable problems. Deeper trouble lurks in the widespread view of "maps as scientific instruments," Cosgrove explains. The threat of criticism for any deviation from the available county-by-county data can discourage map-makers from seeking alternatives, he says. Those alternatives might include qualitative, artistic approaches or a thoroughly quantitative strategy that didn't use territorial boundaries as the point of departure. With good data and mathematical contraints, for example, one could allow groupings of Chinese speakers around Los Angeles to describe their own shapes on the map.

"If the MLA is concerned in a positive or, rather, a progressive way of dealing with this fact of language globalization in a place like Los Angeles, then it seems a shame that it's mapping it so conservatively."

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