The Many Voices of America: A Look at the Multilingual Landscape of the US

According to the latest American Community Survey, a record-breaking number of people in the United States speak a language other than English at home. 

As of 2022, 69.2 million U.S. residents aged five years and older live in multilingual homes. Although Spanish far outstrips other languages in its quantity of speakers, a wide variety of languages are looking to close the gap.

Languages Other Than English Dominate Across U.S. Regions

Since 1980, the number of U.S. residents who speak another language at home and their percentage of the total population has tripled. The 2022 American Community Survey reported that almost 1 in 4 U.S. residents speak a foreign tongue at home, which does not include multilingual individuals who acquired their second language through education.

Although people in the U.S. speak many languages from all over the world, one language outnumbers the rest due to its geographical proximity and historical ties—currently, 13.3% of U.S. residents—whether citizens or foreign-born—speak Spanish at home. Hispanics are the largest minority group in the U.S., representing 18.9% of the population

So, other than Spanish, which foreign languages are Americans most likely to hear while out and about in their local supermarkets?

Northeast

The American Northeast is also the country’s most densely populated region, encompassing land from Maine to New Jersey. There, 23.4% of residents speak a foreign language at home. 

With 981 thousand speakers, the second most spoken language is Chinese (including Mandarin, Cantonese, and other dialects). Portuguese is next, with nearly half a million speakers.

Meanwhile, Russian, French, and Haitian Creole follow behind, in that order—all three with many speakers that hover around the mid-300 thousand.

Midwest

Residents of the Midwest are the least likely in the country to hear another tongue spoken, while only 11.45% of U.S. residents in that region are foreign-language speakers at home. 

Within that small percentage, the foreign language with the second-most speakers in the Midwest is Arabic (335,453 individuals), closely followed by Chinese (323,258).

The following language, German, has a deep history in the region. In the 1800s, 5 million Germans arrived in the U.S. and settled in the Midwest. Their presence led to a “German triangle” between Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

South

The American South is home to 22.7 million people who speak a language other than English at home. Their presence is distributed unevenly across sixteen states—the vast majority have made Texas (41.18%) and Florida (26.01%) their homes. 

Due to the large number of Hispanics residing in these states, the most spoken foreign language is Spanish, with 16.09 million speakers. 

Nonetheless, Chinese and Vietnamese are the two languages vying for the second spot—there are 561 thousand Chinese speakers in the South, and Vietnamese has only 30 thousand speakers less than that number. 

Haitian Creole (with 486 thousand speakers) is a language that can be heard while visiting the picturesque Wynwood Walls in Miami’s Little Haiti district. Rounding out the top five is French, which includes the Cajun variety historically spoken in French Louisiana.

West

The West extends from Alaska, down the length of the West Coast, and as far out as the Hawaiian islands. 

A substantial 32.3% of U.S. residents in that region speak a language other than English at home. Of that percentage, a staggering 16.2 million of them live in the state of California and are primarily Spanish speakers. 

However, the following four languages on the list represent the vast diversity of the region’s sizable Asian community. 

Chinese people have been emigrating to the American West since the 1840s—today, there are 1.55 million Chinese speakers in the region. Next, 1.07 million residents speak Tagalog (or its dialects). Filipinos arrived in the early 20th century after the U.S. annexed the Philippines in 1898. Similarly, Vietnamese people sought refuge in the U.S. after the war; now, 732 thousand speakers speak Vietnamese at home.

What About Native Languages?

Although much of the U.S. language diversity can be attributed to the country’s long history of immigration, not all languages other than English are foreign. New statistics by the American Community Survey show that 2.7 million U.S. residents solely identify as “American Indian or Alaska Native.” An additional 6.3 million people also reported that identity in combination with another race. 

New York City is the urban center with the largest Native population in the country. At the same time, California boasts the largest population of any state—only 20% of the total live on indigenous lands. Navajo speakers comprise the single largest Native linguistic group in the U.S., with 155,304 speakers. In combination with other indigenous languages, that number increases to approximately 169 thousand individuals.

Moreover, in Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific territories, the original inhabitants of these islands have their own native languages, all of which have been used for centuries before U.S. annexation. Almost half a million U.S. residents across the country speak Ilocano, Samoan, Hawaiian, or other Austronesian languages (485,099 speakers). The majority of these are concentrated along the West Coast and Pacific—in the state of Hawaii, 125 thousand people speak the native language.

What Languages Are Spoken in Major U.S. Cities?

Major urban centers are always home to a dizzying melting pot of languages, and the United States’ most populous cities are no exception. 

Other than Spanish, the 18.5 million residents of the New York City metropolitan area are most likely to speak at home: Chinese, Russian, Haitian, Arabic, and Yiddish. 

In Los Angeles homes, 50.01% of residents speak a language other than English—such as Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, and Armenian.

The Chicago metropolitan area is home to 2.69 million speakers of other languages, including Polish, Chinese, Tagalog, Arabic, and Urdu. Two Texas cities—Dallas and Houston—have residents who speak Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, and South Asian languages like Hindi, Urdu, and Telugu.

Lastly, the nation’s capital is where 2.27 million foreign-language speakers call home. There, 24.3% of residents speak Chinese, Somali, Yoruba (or other West African languages), Korean, and French.

This article was produced by TPR Teaching and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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