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About Language Use in the U.S. Population

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 data on limited English-speaking households are currently collected in the American Community Survey (ACS).  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

Federal agencies, organizations, local governments, and private enterprises rely on American Community Survey language data to determine how and where to provide language assistance service. Knowing languages spoken in a community, in combination with information about housing, voting, employment, and education, helps the government and communities identify needs for services for people with limited English-speaking ability.

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.

Other major uses of data language use include allocation of educational funds to states for helping schools teach students with lower levels of English proficiency. In 2000, President Clinton signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to identify the need for services to those with limited English proficiency (LEP) and to implement a system to provide meaningful access to language assistance services. Agencies rely on these data to determine how and where to provide language assistance service. Many other institutions, organizations, local governments, and private enterprises make use of these data in similar ways.

Data about the languages spoken at home and English-speaking ability allows public and private enterprises to comply with regulations and policies under Executive Order 13166. ACS language data is also used to allocate educational funds to states for helping schools teach children, youth, and adults with lower levels of English-speaking ability.

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

Language Coding and Tabulation

The coding operations used by the Census Bureau put the reported answers from the question "What is this language?" into language categories. In 2016, the code list was revised to match the International Organization for Standardization's ISO-639-3 standard, and the number of possible codes was increased from 382 to 1,333. Linguists recognize over 7,000 languages in the world, and as respondents report new languages, more codes are added to the language list.

Whenever possible, language write-ins are coded as an ISO-639-3 language. Other codes have been added for common write-ins that can only be classified within a language family (i.e. Berber languages, Karen languages), or within a geographical region (i.e. Europe N.E.C., Nigeria N.E.C.). Similarly, languages within a macrolanguage are coded at the individual language level whenever possible, and at the macrolanguage level (i.e. Chinese, Arabic, Persian) when it is not possible to determine the specific individual language from the write-in answer.

Due to small sample counts, data tabulations are not available for all 1,333 languages. Presenting data for all language codes is not sensible due to confidentiality concerns. Therefore, the Census Bureau collapses the languages into more manageable categories for tabulations. The original language categories were developed following the 1970 Census and were based generally on Classification and Index of the World's Languages (Voegelin, C.F. and F.M., 1977). In the American Community Survey, the language categories have been updated, with the latest revision occurring in 2016. In 2016, linguistic classifications were based generally on the hierarchies in Ethnologue: Languages of the World19th Edition (Simons, G.F. and C.D. Fennig (eds.), 2016).

The determination of whether to show an individual language or collapse it into an aggregated category depends chiefly on the size of the population in the United States speaking that language at home. In tabulations, smaller languages are aggregated with other languages in a way that meets a certain population threshold, but has some utility for translators or researchers. The simplest collapse recodes languages other than English into four major language groups: Spanish, Other Indo-European languages, Asian and Pacific Island languages, and Other languages. A more detailed collapsing uses 42 non-English languages and language groups. The table below shows how more detail on the four and 42 language groups. For information on how to get more detail, go to the FAQ.

Four and Forty-Two Group Classifications of Languages Spoken at Home with Examples

Four Group Classification Forty-Two Group Classification Examples
Spanish Spanish Spanish, Ladino
Other Indo-European languages French (incl. Cajun) French, Cajun
Haitian Haitian
Italian Italian, Sicilian
Portuguese Portuguese, Kabuverdianu
German German, Luxembourgish
Yiddish, Pennsylvania Dutch or other West Germanic languages Dutch, Yiddish
Greek Greek
Russian Russian
Polish Polish
Serbo-Croatian Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian
Ukrainian or other Slavic languages Bulgarian, Czech, Ukrainian
Armenian Armenian
Persian (incl. Farsi, Dari) Iranian Persian (Farsi), Dari
Gujarati Gujarati
Hindi Hindi
Urdu Urdu
Punjabi Punjabi (Panjabi)
Bengali Bengali
Nepali, Marathi, or other Indic languages Nepali, Marathi, Konkani
Other Indo-European languages Albanian, Lithuanian, Pashto (Pushto), Romanian, Swedish
Telugu Telugu
Tamil Tamil
Malayalam, Kannada, or other Dravidian languages Malayalam, Kannada
Asian and Pacific Island languages Chinese (incl. Mandarin, Cantonese) Mandarin Chinese, Min Nan Chinese (incl. Taiwanese), Yue Chinese (Cantonese)
Japanese Japanese
Korean Korean
Hmong Hmong
Vietnamese Vietnamese
Khmer Central Khmer (Cambodian)
Thai, Lao, or other Tai-Kadai languages Thai, Lao
Other languages of Asia Burmese, Karen, Turkish, Uzbek
Tagalog (incl. Filipino) Tagalog, Filipino
Ilocano, Samoan, Hawaiian, or other Austronesian languages Cebuano (Bisayan), Hawaiian, Iloko (Ilocano), Indonesian, Samoan
All other languages Navajo Navajo
Other Native languages of North America Apache languages, Cherokee, Lakota, Tohono O'odham, Yupik languages
Arabic Arabic languages
Hebrew Hebrew
Amharic, Somali, or other Afro-Asiatic languages Amharic, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, Somali, Tigrinya
Yoruba, Twi, Igbo, or other languages of Western Africa Akan (incl. Twi), Igbo (Ibo), Wolof, Yoruba
Swahili or other languages of Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa Ganda, Kinyarwanda, Lingala, Swahili
Other and unspecified languages Hungarian, Jamaican Creole English, Unspecified

Contact us

For assistance, please contact the Census Call Center at 1-800-923-8282 (toll free) or visit ask.census.gov for further information.

Page Last Revised - December 16, 2021
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