14 Language Facts from the U.S. Census Bureau
By Arika Okrent
Since 1890, the U.S. Census has asked various questions about the languages people speak. Until 1980, the questions were sometimes confusing and they were directed only to those who didn’t speak any English or were born in a foreign country. With the 1980 census, a three-part question was adopted that applied to everyone, giving a more complete picture of language in the U.S. The first part of the question asks if a person speaks a language other than English at home. If the answer to the first part is yes, the second part asks what the other language is. The third part asks how well the person speaks English: “very well,” “well,” “not well,” or “not at all.”
The language questions are now asked every year on the American Community Survey. This month, the Census Bureau released its report on the 2011 survey. Here are 14 interesting facts about language in the U.S.
1. Over 300 languages are spoken in the U.S. For purposes of analysis they are categorized into 39 groups (e.g., Slavic languages besides Russian, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian are under “Other Slavic Languages.” Indian languages besides Hindi, Gujarati, and Urdu are under “Other Indic Languages.”)
2. Of the population 5 years and older, 21 percent speak another language at home. Of those, 62 percent speak Spanish. Of those Spanish speakers, 56 percent speak English “very well.”
3. From 2005 to 2011 the percentage of Spanish speakers increased, while those who spoke English less than “very well” decreased. There are more Spanish speakers, and also more Spanish speakers who are fluent in English.
4. While the language with the biggest increase in numbers of speakers since 1980 is Spanish, Vietnamese has had the biggest percentage increase. There are now almost 7 times the number of Vietnamese speakers there were in 1980.
5. There were other large increases over the same period for Russian, Persian, Chinese, Korean, and Tagalog.
6. At the same time, the number of Italian, Yiddish, Polish, German, and Greek speakers decreased.
7. The last 10 years saw a doubling of the number of Hindi speakers, speakers of “Other Indic Languages” (such as Punjabi, Bengali, and Marathi), speakers of “Other Asian” Languages” (such as Malayalam, Telugu, and Tamil), and speakers of African Languages (such as Amharic, Ibo, Yoruba, and Swahili).
8. Unsurprisingly, those who are young and born here are more likely to speak English “very well.”
9. The metro area with the highest percentage speaking another language is Laredo, Texas.
10. In metro areas with high numbers of speakers of other languages, Spanish is usually the biggest non-English language, except in San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA and Honolulu where the category of “Asian and Pacific Island Language” is bigger, and Farmington, NM where Navajo is biggest.
11. The state with the lowest percentage of those who speak another language is West Virginia (2 percent). The highest is California (44 percent).
12. A full breakdown by individual language (rather than by the 39 categories) is available for the 2006-2008 survey period. It estimates that there are 173 speakers of Gilbertese, 707 speakers of Luxombourgian, and 1649 speakers of Basque.
13. There are an estimated 117,547 speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, 38,494 of whom speak English less than “very well.”
14. There are over 1000 speakers of the Pacific island language Samoan in Alaska.