U.S. Department of Commerce

Language Use

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About Language Use

For most people residing in the United States, English is the only language spoken in the home. However, many languages other than English are spoken in homes across the country. Data on speakers of languages other than English and on their English-speaking ability provide more than an interesting portrait of our nation. Routinely, these data are used in a wide variety of legislative, policy, legal, and research applications.

Language use, English-speaking ability, and linguistic isolation data are currently collected in the American Community Survey. In the past, various questions on language use were asked in the censuses from 1890 to 1970. The three questions below were asked in the census in 1980, 1990, and 2000 and are the same questions asked in the American Community Survey.

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

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.


LANGUAGE CODING AND THE CODE LISTS

The coding operations used by the Census Bureau puts the reported answers from the question "What is this language?" into 382 language categories of single languages or language families. These 382 language categories represent the most commonly spoken language other than English at home. Linguists recognize several thousand languages in the world and as languages are reported by respondents, they are coded and added to the language list. Due to small sample counts, data tabulations are not generally available for all 382 detailed languages. Instead, the Census Bureau collapses languages into smaller sets. For the list of the 382 individual language codes, click here [PDF 55k].

Presenting data for all 382 languages is not sensible due to sample size and confidentiality concerns. Therefore we collapse the 382 language codes into more manageable categories. These categories were originally developed following the 1970 Census and are grouped linguistically and geographically. These groups are based generally on Classification and Index of the World's Languages (Voegelin, C.F. and F.M., 1977) and are updated constantly using linguistic books and online resources.

The simplest collapse recodes the 382 language codes into four major language groups: Spanish; Other Indo-European languages; Asian and Pacific Island languages; and All Other languages. A more detailed collapsing puts the 382 codes into 39 languages and language groups. The table below shows how the 382 codes go into the four and 39 language groups. For information on how to get more detail than the four or 39 languages, go to the FAQ.

FOUR LANGUAGE GROUPS
625, 627, 628 Spanish
601-624, 626, 629-678 Other Indo-European languages
684-695, 698-776 Asian and Pacific Island languages
679-683, 696-697, 777-999 All other languages
39 LANGUAGE GROUPS
625,627,628 Spanish
620-622,624 French
623 French Creole
619 Italian
629-630 Portuguese
607,613 German
609 Yiddish
608,610-612 Other West Germanic languages
614-618 Scandinavian
637 Greek
639 Russian
645 Polish
649-651 Serbo-Croatian
640-644,646-648,652 Other Slavic languages
655 Armenian
656 Persian
667 Gujarati
663 Hindi
671 Urdu
662,664-666,668-670,672-678 Other Indic languages
601-606,626,631-636,638,653-654,657-661 Other Indo-European languages
708-715 Chinese
723 Japanese
724 Korean
726 Mon-Khmer, Cambodian
722 Hmong
720 Thai
725 Laotian
728 Vietnamese
684-707,716-719,721,727,729 Other Asian languages
742 Tagalog
730-741,743-776 Other Pacific Island languages
864 Navajo
800-863,865-955,959-966,977-982 Other Native American languages
682 Hungarian
777 Arabic
778 Hebrew
780-799 African languages
679-681,683,696-697,779,956-958,967-976,983-999 All other languages

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Language Use |  Last Revised: July 03, 2013