Karen Zeigler is a demographer and Steven A. Camarota is the director of research at the Center.
Based on analysis of newly released Census Bureau data for 2018, the Center for Immigration Studies finds that 67.3 million residents in the United States now speak a language other than English at home, a number equal to the entire population of France. The number has nearly tripled since 1980, and more than doubled since 1990. The growth at the state level is even more pronounced. All language figures in Census Bureau data are for persons five years of age and older.
Among the findings:
- In 2018, a record 67.3 million U.S. residents (native-born, legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants) spoke a language other than English at home. The number has more than doubled since 1990 and almost tripled since 1980.
- Since 1980, the number who speak a foreign language at home grew nearly seven times faster than the number who speak only English at home. Even since 2010, when the number speaking a foreign language at home was already very large, the number of foreign-language speakers increased more than twice as fast as that of English speakers.1
- As a share of the population, 21.9 percent of U.S. residents speak a foreign language at home — more than double the 11 percent in 1980.
- In nine states, more than one in four residents now speaks a language other than English at home. These nine states account for two-thirds of all foreign-language speakers. In contrast, in 1980 foreign-language speakers were one in four residents in just two states (New Mexico and Hawaii); and these two states accounted for just 3 percent of all foreign language speakers.
- The states with the largest share of their populations speaking a foreign language at home in 2018 were California (45 percent), Texas (36 percent), New Mexico (34 percent), New Jersey (32 percent), New York and Nevada (each 31 percent), Florida (30 percent), Arizona and Hawaii (each 28 percent), and Massachusetts (24 percent).
- States with the largest percentage increase in those speaking a foreign language at home from 1980 to 2018 are Nevada (up 1,088 percent), Georgia (up 952 percent), North Carolina (up 802 percent), Virginia (up 488 percent), Tennessee (up 459 percent), Arkansas (up 445 percent), Washington (up 432 percent), South Carolina (up 398 percent), Florida (up 393 percent), Utah (up 383 percent), and Oregon (up 380 percent).
- States with the largest percentage increase in the number of those speaking a foreign language at home since 2010 are North Dakota (up 63 percent), Utah (up 29 percent), Iowa (up 24 percent), Florida, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Washington, Maryland and Nevada (each up 23 percent), Oregon and Tennessee (each up 22 percent), North Carolina and Kentucky (each up 21 percent), and South Carolina (up 20 percent).
- In America's five largest cities, just under half (48 percent) of residents now speak a language other than English at home. In New York City it is 49 percent; in Los Angeles it is 59 percent; in Chicago it is 36 percent; in Houston it is 50 percent; and in Phoenix it is 38 percent.2
- In 2018, there were 90 cities and Census Designated Places (CDP) with populations of at least 63,000 in which a majority of residents spoke a foreign language at home. These include Hialeah, Fla., and Laredo, Texas (each 89 percent); East Los Angeles (88 percent); and Passaic, N.J. (78 percent).3
- In 2018, there were 229 cities and CDPs in which more than one in three residents spoke a language other than English at home. Some of these places may be surprising: Providence, R.I. (50 percent); Allentown, Pa. (48 percent); Germantown, Md. (46 percent); Centerville, Va. (44 percent); New Rochelle, N.Y. (42 percent); West Valley City, Utah (39 percent); Springdale, Ark. (35 percent); and Troy, Mich. (34 percent).
- The largest numerical increases in those who speak a language other than English at home between 2010 and 2018 were among speakers of Spanish (up 4.5 million), Chinese (up 663,000), Arabic (up 394,000), Hindi (up 265,000), Tagalog (up 187,000), Telugu (up 177,000), Vietnamese (up 161,000), Bengali (up 152,000), Portuguese (up 128,000), and Tamil (up 124,000). Telugu and Tamil are spoken in India, Tagalog is the national language of the Philippines, and Bengali is spoken in India and is also the national language of Bangladesh.
- Languages with more than a million people who speak it at home in 2018 were Spanish (41.5 million), Chinese (3.5 million), Tagalog (1.8 million), Vietnamese (1.5 million), Arabic (1.3 million), French (1.2 million), and Korean (1.1 million).
- There are now more people who speak Spanish at home in the United States than in any country in Latin America with the exception of Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina.
- Of those who speak a foreign language at home, 25.6 million (38 percent) told the Census Bureau that they speak English less than very well. This figure is entirely based on the opinion of the respondent; the Census Bureaus does not measure language skills.4
- Of those who speak a foreign language at home, 45 percent were born in the United States.
Data Source. In September 2019, the Census Bureau released some of the data from the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS). The survey reflects the U.S. population as of July 1, 2018. The ACS is by far the largest survey taken by the federal government each year and includes over two million households.5 The Census Bureau has posted some of the results from the ACS to the Bureau's website.6 It has not released the public-use version of the ACS for researchers to download and analyze. Unless otherwise indicated, the information in this analysis comes directly from the Bureau's website.
There are three language questions in the ACS for 2010 and 2018. The first asks whether each person in the survey speaks a language other than English at home. Second, for those who answer "yes", the survey then asks what language the person speaks. Third, the survey also asks how well the person speaks English. Only those who speak a language at home other than English are asked about their English skills. The 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses (long form) asked almost the exact same questions.
In this report we provide some statistics for the immigrant population, referred to as the "foreign-born" by the Census Bureau. The foreign-born population is comprised of those individuals who were not U.S. citizens at birth. It includes naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents (green card holders), temporary workers, foreign students, and illegal immigrants. It does not include those born to immigrants in the United States, including to illegal immigrant parents, nor does it include those born in outlying U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico. Prior research by the Department of Homeland Security and others indicates that some 90 percent of illegal immigrants respond to the ACS.7
1 In 1980 there were 23.06 million who spoke a foreign language at home and 187.19 million who spoke only English at home. In 2018, there were 67.27 million people who spoke a foreign language at home and 240.25 million who spoke only English at home. This means that the number of foreign-language speakers increased 192 percent between 1980 and 2018, compared to a 28 percent increase for those who speak only English. It also means the number of foreign-language speakers increased 13 percent between 2010 and 2018 and the number who speak only English increased 5 percent. All figures are for persons five years of age and older.
2 Figures for 552 cities and CDP are shown in Table 5, available here. The 48 percent is based on the entire population of these five cities. If the share for each city is averaged together without regard to each city's size, then 46 percent speak a language other than English at home.
3 The Census Bureau at census.data.gov reports population figures for 629 cities and CDPs. Of these, language data is available for the 552 shown in Table 5. The total population (not just those 5 and older) in the smallest of these cities was slightly over 63,000.
4 There is some other data that does measure the English language ability of U.S. residents, including those who speak a foreign language at home. The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) measured English literacy among a representative sample of Americans between 2012 and 2014. Publicly available data from the PIAAC shows that among people who spoke a foreign language most often at home, 49 percent scored "below basic" on an objective test of English literacy — including immigrants and the native-born. "Below basic" has been likened to functional illiteracy. It seems likely that the self-assessment reported in the ACS overstates English language ability while the PIAAC does a better job of capturing language ability. However, the PIAAC data must be interpreted with caution due to differences in question wording. The PIAAC asks which language is spoken most often at home, whereas the Census simply asks if a non-English language is spoken at home. Furthermore, about a third of PIAAC participants did not answer the question about language use at home, for reasons that are unclear. See Jason Richwine, "Immigrant Literacy: Self-Assessment vs. Reality", Center for Immigration Studies, June 21, 2017.
7 See Table 2 on page 5 in Bryan Baker, "Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2014", Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics", July 2017.