What Percentage of People in the U.S. Speak English?
Updated: Mar 10
The English language is the global unifier. It is the language billions of people around the world want to speak, not for a love of the United States, but as a means of economic empowerment. One study has linked the proficiency of spoken English to higher income and a better standard of living. This appears to be true for individuals as well as entire countries. The research shows that the English skills of a population are positively correlated to that population’s economic performance.
With the prevalence and popularity of the English language, it’s surprising to find that a massive one in five people in the U.S. speaks a non-English language when at home - according to the 2017 United States Census Bureau American Community Survey.
What Are the Most Spoken Languages in the U.S?
Census Survey 2016
This survey found that in 2016, 21.6% of residents who were five years old and above, spoke a non-English language at home. This means that 78.4 % spoke only English at home. It appears that Spanish was the most popular non-English language spoken, with 40.5 million people (13.3% of the over five population) speaking it. Spanish was distantly followed by Chinese, with 3.4 million speakers at home and Tagalog with 1.7 million people speaking this language at home.
It was also found that 8.6% of the U.S. population did not have a firm grasp of the English language. Their ability to speak English with any proficiency was described as limited, as they spoke it “less than very well".
Census Survey 2018
More recently, the Census Survey found that 67.3 million U.S. residents, including those born in the U.S. and those who immigrated here, spoke a non-English language at home. Of those, 41.5 million speak Spanish at home. This means that of the 327.2 million residents at the time, 256 million residents spoke only English.
The number of people speaking non-English languages at home has tripled since 1980 and has more than doubled since 1990. We might expect to see the numbers reducing over time, but instead, they’re growing.
Non-English Speakers by the State
In nine U.S. states, more than one in four residents speak a non-English language at home. These states represent 67% of all non-English speaking U.S. residents. This percentage is interesting when we see that in 1980, the non-English speaking residents were one in four in just two states - New Mexico and Hawaii. And these two states represented just 2% of all non-English speakers.
The states with the most significant numbers of non-English speakers are California (45%), Texas (36%), New Mexico (34%), New Jersey (32%), New York and Nevada (31% each), Florida (30%), Arizona and Hawaii (28% each) and Massachusetts (24%).
Is English Disappearing in the U.S.?
So, is English slowly disappearing in the U.S.? The U.S. is a racially and ethnically diverse population, with over 350 languages being spoken within its borders. However, English is still the gold standard for socio-economic growth and development for individuals. While English is not the ‘official’ language of the U.S. legally, it certainly is culturally.
What about the future?
What does the future hold? Of course, we don’t know, but it is worth noting that the diversity of the U.S. is growing - constantly and rapidly. In 2018, half of the country’s youth were classified as ethnic minorities, but this group (Generation Z) is predicted to be the most racially diverse and economically empowered generation in U.S. history. Add to this that between 1980 and 2009, the number of people who spoke a non-English language at home increased by 148%.
The ethnic landscape is rapidly changing in the U.S., causing some to become fearful and xenophobic, but a country that has primarily marketed itself as the ‘great melting pot’ cannot quickly back away from its own proud proclamation,
‘Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’
English is Still Dominant
Despite all of this, the people living in the U.S. are still overwhelmingly English-speaking. Research shows that after only three generations, many people could no longer speak the language of their ancestry. And in 2018, of a population of 307.5 million residents over the age of 5, a massive 240 million people only spoke English.
Although 43% of Americans believe that they should speak more than one language, 75% of them have no second language. This is no doubt due to the dominance of the English language in everyday life. This is also the likely reason that non-English speakers lose the ability to speak their ancestral language after three generations.
Second languages for the U.S.
Americans (who speak only English) viewed learning a second as mainly important for recreational purposes, like when traveling for vacations. However, when they learn a second language, the choices were influenced primarily by national neighbors to the north and south of the U.S. borders. French and Spanish are the two most popular second languages learned and taught in schools. For the more ambitious, Chinese is considered the language of global trade.
With English being the U.S.’s “unofficial official language”, there may be little motivation to learn new languages or maintain previously-known ones. Perhaps many of the English-only movements of the 1990s and early 2000s have worked. Currently, 30 U.S. states have laws requiring that all legal and governmental processes are executed in English only. This puts non-English speakers at a huge disadvantage and is a strong motivation to lose the ancestral language to learn English.
Nonetheless, the Gen Z population is changing demographics. As earlier stated, they are the most racially diverse generation America has ever seen, and many more children are growing up bilingual.
Related: The Language of Justice
We have gone back and forth with the numbers here, and it seems that despite a growing number of people who speak non-English languages at home, the United States is still mostly English speaking. Although the ‘melting pot’ is ethnically and racially diverse, there is a lot of pressure to speak only English. Some now see other languages that had once been embraced as nationally threatening.
What will the future bring? We don’t know, but it might be wise to learn a second (or third) language.