Did You Know? 21.7% of the U.S. population speaks a language other than English at home.
English is used for legislation, executive orders, treaties, federal court rulings, and official pronouncements and is the primary language taught in schools however, the United States does not have an official national language. English is far from the only language spoken in the United States. In fact, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey, over 350 language groups are spoken in the United States. With the 2020 census underway, we think now is a great time to discuss languages in the United States.
As of 2015, the most recent Census survey on language spoken, over 60 million people speak a language other an English at home. Or, to put it another way, 21.7% percent of the U.S. population. In descending order, the top five languages, other than English spoken in the U.S., are Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, French, and Vietnamese. Let's dive in.
Spanish has always been the most widely spoken language after English, with about 37.5 million speakers. And over the last 20 years, the number of Spanish speakers has grown by 60%. After English, Spanish is the most common language in 43 U.S. States. Accounting for over half of non-English speaking households.
Spanish translators must understand what audience of Spanish speakers they are communicating with. Spanish is a very regional language with Castilian Spanish and Standard Latin American Spanish being the most generally used variants translated. However, to effectively communicate with your audience, we recommend that you pay close attention to your audience's geographic differences. Variations in Cuban, Mexican, Puerto-Rican, and European Spanish have unique variations and differences in vocabulary.
With over 1.2 billion speakers, it's no wonder Chinese is the third most spoken language in the United States. 3.5 million households speak Mandarin or Cantonese at home in the U.S. Surprisingly, only in the State of New York, is Chinese the primary language behind English and Spanish.
Complicating Chinese translation is the history of the language over the past seventy years, while Traditional Chinese has been the main translation within the U.S., the use of Simplified Chinese is growing. Brought about by the People's Republic of China to increase literacy rates, the political unrest between the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have created variations in how different dialects and written forms are used. These small variations make Chinese a particularly challenging language for a translator, as they must understand precisely where the document is coming from to translate it effectively.
The Philippines' official language has over 1.7 million speakers in the United States and the most commonly spoken language (other than English and Spanish) in both California and Nevada. Tagalog was the primary language spoken around Manila in the 1930's when Commonwealth Constitution was drawn up.
Spanish colonial history in the Philippines meant that Spanish and English — once upon a time — were the only two officially sanctioned languages of the islands. Tagalog was chosen to represent the various indigenous populations as a non-European national language. Even though Tagalog is of local origin, history has given the language a healthy amount of borrowed words.
Translators dealing with Tagalog translation have to be aware of Spanish loanwords, which make up a huge percentage of Tagalog's modern, conversational vocabulary. And if that's not enough to do your head in, English has also taken on a slightly different form in the Philippines as well. "Philippine English" has its own unique cadence, and is often involved in "code-switching," or moving back and forth between two different languages.
Coming in at number four 1.3 million households speak French in the U.S. You'll find the most French speakers in the northernmost parts of Maine and in the southern parts of Louisiana. However, culturally there are many differences between French spoken in Louisiana. French spoken in New England is derived from English Puritans and French colonization of New England and Canada and the variations of Canadian French. While French spoken in Louisiana has evolved from an intermingling of French Catholic, African Americans (both slaves and free settlers), Creole, and Spanish influences.
Rounding out the top five languages spoken in the U.S., Vietnamese is spoken widely in the southeastern corner of Nevada and the northwestern part of Washington. 1.2 million households in the United States speak Vietnamese. California has the highest percentage of non-English speakers (at 39 percent), followed by New Mexico, Texas, and New York. The vast majority of people who spoke another language at home reported that they could speak English very well or quite fluently.
Participating in the Movement
In the cultural melting pot that is the United States, it's no wonder that diverse communication offerings are on the rise. There is power in giving representation to all citizens. As a Language Services Provider, we pride ourselves on participating in this work through our partnership with organizations worldwide. Is your organization in need of a translation reboot? Let's talk.