Languages spoken at home

Alexander Fishkov

Alexander Fishkov, Ph.D. student Computer Science

The population of the United States is very diverse: for centuries, people from different nations have been coming here to find their new life. They brought along elements of their culture and their language. There are many families who use languages other than English in their family. In this post we will use various ACS releases to explore the multitude of languages spoken at home in the U.S.

Spanish is the most widely-used foreign language in the country, with 38 million speakers. The second most popular is Chinese with three million speakers (already an order of magnitude less). Other foreign languages in our top 10 list have around one million speakers nationwide. The ACS has additional questions regarding language in their survey, and one of them is English proficiency. The right axis of the chart above represents proportion of speakers with different levels English language skills. French and German speakers demonstrate the highest level: 80 percent speak English “very well”. Chinese and Korean speakers have the lowest English proficiency among our top 10: only 45 percent speak English “very well”.

According to 2014 ACS data, only 20 percent of Americans speak a foreign language at home. Among these, the top 10 languages cover 82 percent, and Spanish alone accounts for 62 percent of all foreign language speakers.

To illustrate how the numbers of speakers of different languages has changed over the years we have used ACS 1-year estimates beginning in 2007. For a simpler view we present the top 20 languages for each year in the form of ranks.

Three high places remain in the same order: Spanish, Chinese and Tagalog. Since 2010 fourth place has been taken by Vietnamese, which replaced French. The number of German speakers started to decline since 2010 and fell from fifth place to 11th in 2014. The number of Russian speakers has also been declining, and fell from eight place in 2007 to 12th in 2014. Other tendencies include rising position of Arabic and Asian (uncategorized) languages.

Using state- and county-level data from ACS 2014 we have prepared a map of foreign languages in United States. Each territory is colored by the most popular foreign language used at home in this territory. Since Spanish has a significantly larger number of speakers than other languages and is widespread across US we exclude it from our scope.

You can hover your mouse over a legend element to highlight the corresponding regions on the map.

At the state level we see that some languages for distinctive regions. Chinese is dominant across West Coast and some parts of the East coast. German remains in the central region of U.S., while French is popular in the far Northeast.

On the county level many more languages appear and the map has more variability. You can explore it in more detail by clicking on state to zoom in.

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About Alexander Fishkov

Alexander Fishkov

Alexander Fishkov, Ph.D. student Computer Science

Alexander is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science. He currently holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Applied Math. He has experience working for industry major companies performing research in the fields of machine learning, data mining and natural language processing. In his free time, Alexander enjoys hiking, Nordic skiing and traveling.

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4 thoughts on “Languages spoken at home”

  1. Hi,
    Your pie chart is wrong. The percent speaking only English at home in 2010-2015 5-year estimates is 79.1%. I am the SME at Census for language data. Maybe you used the total pop as your denominator rather than total pop age 5+? Or you used the PUMS when you could have just taken the numbers from AFF, which are more accurate as they use the full sample? Please see or for the real numbers.

  2. Typo, sorry – that’s 2010-2014 5-year, not 2015. The 2015 1-year data will be released next month, btw.

    1. Hello Christine,
      Thank you for spotting the mistake.
      I have indeed used American Fact Finder table that you mentioned while preparing the post, but I have miscalculated the number for ‘Other languages’ and it led to skewed percentages. Now the post is corrected.

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