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Nearly 68 Million People Spoke a Language Other Than English at Home in 2019

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The number of people in the United States who spoke a language other than English at home nearly tripled from 23.1 million (about 1 in 10) in 1980 to 67.8 million (almost 1 in 5) in 2019, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report.

At the same time, the number of people who spoke only English also increased, growing by approximately one-fourth from 187.2 million in 1980 to 241 million in 2019 (Figure 1).

The report, Language Use in the United States: 2019, uses American Community Survey (ACS) data to highlight trends and characteristics of the different languages spoken in the United States over the past four decades.

Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Arabic speakers were more likely to be naturalized U.S. citizens than not U.S. citizens. Spanish speakers were less likely to be naturalized U.S. citizens (18%) than not U.S. citizens (28%).

In this article we refer to foreign-language “speakers” as those who report speaking a language other than English (LOTE) at home, not necessarily all those who can speak that language.

The Hispanic population is the largest minority group in the United States. So it is not surprising Spanish was the most common non-English language spoken in U.S. homes (62%) in 2019 – 12 times greater than the next four most common languages.

Age and Nativity by Language

Figure 2 displays the breakdown of age and nativity for the five most commonly spoken languages other than English in 2019. Speakers of Spanish and Arabic, the first and fifth most common foreign languages spoken, had similar age compositions.

Both had the greatest share (16%) of speakers ages 5 to 14 years and a small share of older speakers – 14% of Spanish speakers and 13% of Arabic speakers were ages 60 and over.

In contrast, only 4% of Tagalog speakers were ages 5 to 14 but a third (33%) were 60 or older.

More than half (55%) of Spanish speakers were U.S.-born, four times the share (13%) of Tagalog speakers.

Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Arabic speakers were more likely to be naturalized U.S. citizens than not U.S. citizens. Spanish speakers were less likely to be naturalized U.S. citizens (18%) than not U.S. citizens (28%).

Educational Attainment and Employment

In 2019, 51% of Tagalog and 54% of Chinese speakers had a bachelor’s degree or higher (these two groups were not statistically different from each other) compared to only 17% of Spanish speakers. Figure 3 shows educational attainment for the U.S. population ages 25 years and older by language spoken at home.

About a third (33%) of Spanish speakers did not graduate from high school, the largest share of speakers of the five most common languages other than English.

Employment status of speakers ages 16 and over did not vary much across the five languages (Figure 3). Less than 4% were unemployed in 2019 – not significantly different than the national average.

English Proficiency by Language

The federal government relies on data on language use and English proficiency to provide language services under the Voting Rights Act, as well as to allocate educational funds to state English as a Second Language (ESL) programs.

Based on the 2019 data, 52% of people who spoke Chinese and 57% of those who spoke Vietnamese at home in the United States spoke English “less than very well,” compared to the other three common languages: Spanish 39%, Tagalog 30%, and Arabic 35% (Figure 4). This may have resulted from a recent increase in immigration from Asia and newcomers who have not had enough time to assimilate and master English yet.

Household Characteristics by Language

In addition to individual differences, there were also differences in the U.S. households that spoke the five most frequently spoken non-English languages (Figure 5).

A limited English-speaking household is one in which no members ages14 and over speak only English or speak English “very well.” About a third of Chinese (33%) and Vietnamese (31%) households were limited English-speaking households – four times greater than Tagalog households.

In contrast, Tagalog-speaking households were more likely to be “non-limited” English speaking. About 92% of Tagalog-speaking households were non-limited English speaking and 8% were limited English speaking.

The majority of households across all five languages were family households, defined as having at least two members (including the householder) related by birth, marriage or adoption. On average, these households each had zero to one child under age 18 and three to four persons in the family.

Among nonfamily households, defined either as a person living alone or one who shares the housing unit with nonrelatives such as boarders or roommates, a greater proportion (30%) of Chinese-speaking households were nonfamily compared to households speaking the other four languages. Half as many Tagalog-speaking households (17%) were nonfamily households. 

About the Data

The American Community Survey is a nationally representative survey of households in the United States administered annually to a sample of approximately 3.5 million housing unit addresses (obtaining information about every household member). In addition to language information, the ACS collects data on demographic and socioeconomic characteristics.

For a comprehensive review at the individual languages and languages groups spoken in the United States, refer to the Language Use in the United States: 2019 report.

Sandy Dietrich is a survey statistician in the Census Bureau’s Survey Improvement Research Branch.

Erik Hernandez is a survey statistician in the Census Bureau’s Education and Social Stratification Branch.


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Page Last Revised - December 13, 2022
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