May 6, 2011 | French

Field Trip: The Modern Language Association

They have a really cool language map.

I am a graduate-school dropout. When I was 24, I left my Ph.D. program in comparative literature, taking what is known as a terminal M.A. Although it sounds deadly, it means simply that instead of continuing my studies as was expected in my program, I chose to conclude my graduate-school experience at the Master’s level. 

Multilingual Rabies Alert Seen Earlier This Week, Central Park

Multilingual Rabies Alert Seen Earlier This Week, Central Park

I loved my program, but it had come to my attention that I was not meant to be an academic. Instead, I picked up and moved from Los Angeles to New York City, with my boyfriend at the time, and without a job or apartment. I had been to New York a few times and knew I liked it, but within three days of my move, fondness became a full-fledged love that has never since abated. 

The Modern Language Association (MLA) was to me, as a graduate student, like God. Every year they had a huge conference at which there were numerous talks of interest to scholars of language and literature, and at which scores of aspiring academics desperately tried to secure jobs at colleges and universities around the country.

I had never been to an MLA conference, but I had heard it spoken of in reverent tones, and when I moved to New York, where the MLA is based, I recall responding to a job ad for some kind of position there. God declined to pursue my application, but I have periodically been a dues-paying member of the MLA since then, and the organization remains an object of reverence for me.

When I was first trying to decide what languages to include in this project, I turned to the MLA Language Map and the accompanying Data Center.

More recently, David Goldberg, associate director of the MLA’s Office of Programs and the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages (phew!), generously agreed to give me a tour of the language map’s current features and functions. David is a friendly and helpful scholar of Yiddish, which is not currently one of my languages, though perhaps it should be.

26 Broadway, Where the MLA Lives

26 Broadway, Where the MLA Lives

MLA Reception Area

MLA Reception Area

The MLA is housed at 26 Broadway, also known as the Standard Oil Building. According to the building’s Wikipedia entry, “The structure is currently the 197th tallest building in New York City and the 572nd tallest building in the United States.” I find it amusing that someone bothered to point these things out.

Earlier this week, David showed me around the MLA’s offices and updated me on language-map capabilities. Here, for example, are some nifty things you can do on the MLA’s website:

  • determine the number of people who speak, say, Tagalog in your zip code 
  • look up all the languages spoken in your state or county, with numbers of speakers and age breakdown (there are, for example, 34,535 French speakers in Brooklyn)
  • get a map of the colleges and universities where French (or another language) is being taught around the country and determine the number of registered students at the various institutions (in 2009, for instance, there were 53 French students at Wagner College on Staten Island)

Leaving the Lobby, 26 Broadway

Leaving the Lobby, 26 Broadway

Besides satisfying curiosity, this type of data has many useful applications. David said that teachers use the map in class to show the language composition of local communities. The map is also used by disaster-preparedness types to determine what kinds of translations and interpreters might be needed, and in what quantities, in case of an emergency. 

Then there are marketing applications. Publishers can use the data to determine how many books to publish and in what language, and what school districts to market to. An architectural firm apparently relied on the MLA mapping tools to help make decisions about design preferences for housing, predicting aesthetic tastes based on linguistic backgrounds (which correlated with particular cultural backgrounds). 

The map has even been helpful to petroleum pipeline companies! Legally such companies are obligated to inform the communities through which their pipelines pass about safety issues—which requires an awareness of the language and communication needs of those communities. 

These are just a small sampling of the ways one can deploy the MLA’s linguistic mapping and data tools. I confess, I have occasionally found it a little challenging to figure out the inner workings of the data map, so if you have trouble and feel like posting a question below, I will find the answer and follow up here with a response.

Comments (3)

Rosemary Feal • Posted on Mon, May 09, 2011 - 1:16 pm EST

We were glad you came to visit, Ellen! Your dedication to things linguistic is impressive. I hope we meet again soon.

Rosemary Feal
Executive Director
Modern Language Association

Jordan Vajda • Posted on Tue, May 10, 2011 - 8:35 pm EST

As a soon-to-be grad student of Modern Hebrew Literature (and thus moving to NYC this summer), I couldn’t help but notice that the Hebrew letters for “rabies” are reversed in the sign. It should be: כלבת

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, May 10, 2011 - 10:35 pm EST

Thank you, Jordan - and welcome to New York! David Goldberg of the MLA, who is mentioned above in this blog entry, pointed out to me that the Yiddish word is backwards as well; the letters incorrectly go from left to right rather than right to left. He said this is a technological/typographical issue he has come across before. I guess the machines want to stick to the left-to-right direction they are already traveling? Very strange indeed! And kind of unfortunate for Yiddish and Hebrew speakers!

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