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Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What questions are used to gather language data?
  2. How far back can I get language data for the U.S.?
  3. How many different languages are there?
  4. Why is language information collected?
  5. Where can I find the number of speakers of a language if it is not one of the 39 detailed languages?
  6. When using the Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) file, what are the language and English-speaking ability variables I should use?
  7. What is a Limited English Speaking Household?
  8. Does the Census Bureau provide the number of people who use American Sign Language (ASL)?

What questions are used to gather language data?  back to top

There are three questions that are used to capture those who reported speaking a language other than English at home, what that language was, and how well English is spoken.

a. Does this person speak a language other than English at home?

  • Yes
  • No

b. What is this language? (For example: Korean, Italian, Spanish, Vietnamese)

c. How well does this person speak English?

  • Very well
  • Well
  • Not well
  • Not at all

How far back can I get language data for the U.S.?  back to top

The 1890 census was the first time the Census Bureau asked about languages spoken in the U.S. The questions were asked only of those who did not speak English, however. Since the 1890 census, varying questions on language use were asked but these questions asked about "mother tongue" (language spoken when the person was a child) or asked about language use for select groups only (e.g. the foreign-born population). In the 1970s, due to policy changes and legislative mandates, a set of questions were developed to capture how many people spoke a language other than English at home, what languages were reported being spoken in the home, and how well English was spoken. For a compendium of the previous questions asked in the decennial censuses, go to the Historical Language Questions Web page.


How many different languages are there?  back to top

Linguists report there are over 6,000 langauges spoken throughout the world. The Census Bureau, however, codes 382 individual languages and language groups. These languages represent the most commonly spoken languages in the U.S. For more information on the language codes, go to the About Language Use Web page.


Why is language information collected?  back to top

One of the main purposes of collecting information on languages is for Voting Rights determination. Information about languages spoken at home and English-speaking ability is used to determine bilingual election requirements under the Voting Rights Act. For more information about the Voting Rights Act, go to the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division web site at Introduction to Federal Voting Rights Laws. The Census Bureau creates the Voting Rights Determination File after every census.

For more information on other federal and local needs of language data, read the question-by-question Fact Sheet.


Where can I find the number of speakers of a language if it is not one of the 39 detailed languages?  back to top

While the Census Bureau routinely provides data for the most commonly spoken languages in the United States, more detailed language information can be obtained the following ways.

  1. From the American Community Survey, detailed languages and English-speaking ability information for each state and the U.S. can be downloaded using the tables Detailed Languages Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English for the Population 5 Years and Older by States: 2006-2008 [XLS - 859K] . The ACS tables are from the 2006-2008 3-year file. From Census 2000, detailed languages spoken in the U.S. and in each state, county, and census tract, can be downloaded using the tables Detailed Language Spoken at Home for the Population 5 Years and Over (STP 224) [XLS - 35M] .
  2. Use DataFerrett to extract your own tables. DataFerrett is a data mining tool that accesses data stored in TheDataWeb through the Internet. It allows you to create your own tables or extractions using an interactive tool.
  3. Use the Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) Files. The PUMS is a datafile that contains a sample of the population and housing unit records available to the public for download and dissemination. To read more about the PUMS from the American Community Survey, click here. For more information on the 5-percent PUMS file from Census 2000, click here. To read more about language data from these two sources, go to the American Community Survey Data on Language Use Web page or to the Decennial Census Data on Language Use Web page.
  4. Request a special tabulation. A special tabulation is a service where you can request the Census Bureau create custom tabulations for your needs for a fee. To read more about custom tabulations for data from the American Community Survey, click here. For more information on requesting a Census 2000 special tabulation, click here.

When using the Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) file, what are the language and English-speaking ability variables I should use?  back to top

The following variables pertain to languages use and English-speaking ability on the PUMS files.

  1. LANX: Language other than English spoken at home - Whether the respondent, 5 years and older, speaks a language other than English at home.
  2. LANP: Language spoken at home - 3-digit language codes for the individual languages or language groups reported. For a complete list of the PUMS language codes, go to the PUMS Coded Lists section on the ACS PUMS documentation web site.
  3. ENG: Ability to speak English - Reported ability to speak English of "very well," "well," "not well," and "not at all."
  4. HHL: Household language - The language assigned to the household based on the non-English language reported of those living in the household. If it is a single-person household, the household language is the language reported for that person. If there is more than one language spoken in the household, the household language is assigned in the following order (based on the relationship to the reference person) – (1) reference person, (2) husband/wife, (3) son/daughter, (4) brother/sister, (5) father/mother, (6) grandchild, (7) in-law, (8) other relative, and (9) other non-related household members.
  5. LNGI: Limited English Speaking Household – Household in which no member 14 years old and over (1) speaks only English or (2) speaks a non-English language and speaks English "very well." For more information on this concept, see the following FAQ "What is a Limited English Speaking Household?"

For more information on the PUMS files, go to the American Community Survey Office web site on PUMS documentation at http://www.census.gov/acs/www/data_documentation/pums_documentation/.


What is a Limited English Speaking Household?  back to top

A "limited English speaking household" is one in which no member 14 years old and over (1) speaks only English or (2) speaks a non-English language and speaks English "very well." In other words, all members 14 years old and over have at least some difficulty with English. By definition, English-only households cannot belong to this group. Previous Census Bureau data products have referred to these households as "linguistically isolated" and "Household where no one age 14 and over speaks English only or speaks English ‘very well.’"


Does the Census Bureau provide the number of people who use American Sign Language (ASL)?  back to top

The three questions used to capture languages spoken and English-speaking ability are not designed to identify those who use ASL. The design of the question is to gather the number of people speaking languages other than English at home, identify which languages are being spoken, and to get the number of people who have difficulty with English (see the FAQ question Why is language information collected?). With that in mind, those who use ASL are presumed to know English. Those who report using American Sign Languages, ASL, or some variation of those words are coded as being English speakers.



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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Language Use |  Last Revised: 2013-06-18T10:43:06.811-04:00