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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Language Use

What questions does the Census Bureau ask to gather language data?

The Bureau asks three questions to gather data on those speaking a language other than English at home, what that language is, and how well each person speaks English.

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.?

The 1890 census was the first time the Census Bureau asked about languages spoken in the U.S. The census asked questions only of those who did not speak English, however. Since 1890, the census asked varying questions on language use, 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.

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 helps 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 [PDF <1.0 MB].

How many different languages are there?

Linguists report there are over 7,000 languages spoken throughout the world. The Census Bureau codes 1,333 individual languages and language groups. Presenting data for all languages is not sensible due to sample size and confidentiality concerns. Therefore, we collapse the 1,333 languages into categories that are more manageable. The simplest collapse recodes the languages into four major language groups: Spanish, Other Indo-European languages, Asian and Pacific Island languages, and Other languages. A more detailed collapsing puts the codes into 42 languages and language groups.

For more information on the language codes, go to the About Language Use Web page.

Where can I find the number of speakers of a language if it is not one of the 42 language categories?

While the Census Bureau routinely provides data for the most commonly spoken languages in the United States, you can obtain more detailed language information from the following sources.

1.    From the American Community Survey (ACS), download detailed languages and English-speaking ability information  using the tables: 

Detailed Languages Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English for the Population 5 Years and Older: 2009-2013; or

Detailed Languages Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English for the Population 5 Years and Older by States: 2006-2008. From Census 2000, download detailed languages spoken in the U.S. and in each state, county, and census tract, using the Excel tables Detailed Language Spoken at Home for the Population 5 Years and Over (STP 224).

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. PUMS files are a set of untabulated records about individual people or housing units. The Census Bureau produces the PUMS files so that data users can create custom tables that are not available through pretabulated (or summary) ACS data products. To read more about the PUMS from the ACS. For more information on the 5-percent PUMS file from Census 2000.

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.

When using the Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) files, 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.

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 - 4-digit language codes for the individual languages or language groups reported. Over 130 language codes are available in the PUMS. For a complete list of the LANP language codes and which how to crosswalk PUMS data over time, go to the PUMS Code Lists section on the ACS PUMS documentation web site.

3.    ENG: Ability to speak English - Reported ability to speak English "very well," "well," "not well," and "not at all."

4.    HHLANP: Detailed household language – Only available in 1-year PUMS data from 2016 and later. The language assigned to the household based on the non-English language reported by 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.    HHL: Household language – Same as HHLANP but collapsed into four major language categories. Available in all 1-year and 5-year PUMS data.

6.    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."

What is a Limited English Speaking Household?

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 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)?

The three questions used on the American Community Survey (ACS) to capture languages spoken and English-speaking ability are not designed to identify American Sign Language (ASL) users. The current question design supports the 1975 amendment to the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against specific language minorities when voting. The enforcement of the Voting Rights Act is focused on non-English, non-ASL languages that are used by members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Due to the way data are currently collected, we are not able to provide separate data about ASL use.

Page Last Revised - December 16, 2021
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