What questions are used to gather language data?
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?
b. What is this language? (For example: Korean, Italian, Spanish, Vietnamese)
c. How well does this person speak English?
How far back can I get language data for the U.S.?
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?
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?
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?
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.
When using the Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) file, what are the language and English-speaking ability variables I should use?
The following variables pertain to languages use and English-speaking ability on the PUMS files.
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 linguistic isolation?
Linguistic isolation is a measure of English-speaking ability in a household. A linguistically isolated household is one in which no person age 14 or over speaks English at least "very well." That is, no person age 14 or over speaks only English at home, or speaks another language at home and speaks English "very well." A linguistically isolated person is anyone living in a linguistically isolated household.
Does the Census Bureau provide the number of people who use American Sign Language (ASL)?
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.