California Translation and Demographic Information

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Translation and Demographics in California


If you are translating for a California audience there are certain elements of the demographic makeup which may bear consideration.

California is a linguistically interesting state for a number of reasons: two of them are that an unusually high proportion of immigrants to the United States choose to live here and the Southern border with Mexico is a gateway to a variety of migrating peoples from South and Central America.

If you are representing a governmental body or a large employer in California you will have linguistic challenges quite different from the same organization in the more homogeneous states.


California is the ethnic magnet of the USA, drawing far more than its proportionate share of foreign-born immigrants—just under half of all the immigrants to the United States. This inordinately high population of immigrants continues to affect numerous industries and institutions in the state of California, amongst them local government, public and private health systems, the insurance industry and the public school systems, most of which are struggling to adapt to an increasing immigrant population that does not speak, read, or write English.

Immigrant populations

According to the 1993 census reports put together by the California Department of Finance, California attracts 48% of those immigrating to the USA. Immigrants from the following countries overwhelmingly chose California as their intended state of residence: Armenia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Laos, Mexico, Thailand and Taiwan.

Refugee populations

California also gives shelter to more than its share of the nation's political refugees. Refugees from Vietnam, the former USSR, Laos, Iran, Thailand, the Ukraine, Nicaragua, Russia, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Romania, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Iraq, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Moldova, Uzbekistan, China, Poland, Somalia, Armenia and numerous others have predominantly chosen California as their new home.

Country of origin does not necessarily reflect language spoken

You cannot always tell what language someone speaks by the country of origin. For example, consider the case of India, which has 15 official languages and hundreds of other languages, or South Africa, which has 11 different official languages, or Ethiopia, which does not have a language spoken by the majority of its population.

Or consider the case of refugees from South East Asia who have travelled through refugee camps in Laos and Thailand. Many have been living in Thailand so long that a sizable portion was born there despite the fact that they do not have Thai nationality or citizenship. Ethnic identity in this case becomes more complicated in that these refugees are technically "from" Thailand but they consider themselves to be "Hmong" or "Mien" rather than Laotian or Thai and they speak Hmong or Mien rather than Laotian or Thai. If your target audience does include Hmong you have a special problem.

Some language combinations used in government

If you have the responsibility for generating multilingual publications for government use, you may be interested in the following combinations for multiple language publications that we have recently compiled for local governments in California:

  • English, Farsi, Vietnamese, Laotian
  • English, Hmong, Vietnamese, Russian
  • English, Vietnamese, Traditional Chinese, Korean

If this is an indication of anything, it is surely that each local government is facing different linguistic challenges! Clearly the first task a government body has to undertake is a survey of its population to determine which languages are most prevalent.

Chart of immigrants to California

The following chart lists some of the countries of origin for immigrants to California, along with the language(s) spoken in the country of origin. It is ranked by prevalence of the immigrant population, in descending order.

Country of origin Main language(s)
Mexico Spanish
Philippines Tagalog
Vietnam Vietnamese
China (PRC) Mandarin Chinese
Iran Farsi
Korea Korean
El Salvador Spanish
Taiwan Mandarin Chinese
India Hindi, English, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kannada, Oriya, Punjabi, Assamese, Kashmiri, Sindhi
Laos Laotian, perhaps Hmong or Mien
Hong Kong Cantonese Chinese
Former USSR Russian, Belarusian, Georgian, Tajik, Turkmen, Ukrainian, Kazakh, Kirgiz, Armenian, Azeri, Moldovian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian
Thailand Thai, perhaps Hmong or Mien
Cambodia Khmer
Japan Japanese
Nicaragua Spanish
Pakistan Punjabi, Urdu
Lebanon Arabic
Afghanistan Dari, Pashto
Indonesia Bahasa Indonesian
Ukraine Ukrainian
Israel Hebrew
Fiji Fijian or Fijian Hindi or English
Cuba Spanish
Poland Polish
Ethiopia Amharic or Tegrinyan
Syria Arabic
Colombia Spanish
Honduras Spanish
Egypt Arabic
Jordan Arabic
Guatemala Spanish

Chart information is adapted from the statistical information on legal immigrants to California provided by the California Department of Finance.


If you have to provide material for California populations, your main task is determining the composition of your target audience. This has to be done by linguistic grouping rather than country of origin.

If one of your target audiences uses a non Roman language there are issues to do with printing. If you are accustomed to generating and managing printed material in English, it would be a good idea to consult your printer before you embark upon a round of printing in non Roman fonts—most service bureaus can make film from PDFs, but it is useful to know the capabilities of your own printer/service bureau.

Finally, before you disseminate material in languages other than English, you will have to consider feedback in those languages. You will need some structure in place to handle responses in any language that you translate into—otherwise you will be creating a problem rather than addressing one.

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