Steven A. Camarota is the director of research and Karen Zeigler is a demographer at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Newly released Census Bureau data shows that a record 64.7 million U.S. residents five years of age and older spoke a language other than English at home in 2015. The number is up 5.2 million since 2010 and increased by 1.5 million in just the last year.1 The largest percentage increases from 2010 to 2015 were for speakers of Arabic, Hindi (an Indian language), and Urdu (Pakistan’s national language). As a share of the population, more than one in five U.S. residents now speaks a foreign language at home.
Among the findings:
- In 2015, a record 64.7 million U.S. residents (native-born, legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants) age five and older spoke a language other than English at home. The number has more than doubled since 1990, when 31.8 million spoke a language other than English.
- Taking a longer view, the 64.7 million foreign-language speakers in 2015 is almost triple the number in 1980.
- As a share of the population, 21.5 percent of U.S. residents speak a foreign language at home — nearly double the 11 percent in 1980.
- The largest percentage increases from 2010 to 2015 were among speakers of Arabic (up 34 percent), Hindi (up 33 percent), Urdu (up 24 percent), Chinese (up 19 percent), French Creole (up 16 percent), Gujarati (up 14 percent), and Persian (up 13 percent). Hindi and Gujarati are languages of India; Urdu is spoken in Pakistan; French Creole is spoken in Haiti; and Persian is the national language of Iran.
- The largest numerical increases from 2010 to 2015 were among speakers of Spanish (up 3.1 million), Chinese (up 525,000), Arabic (up 292,000), Hindi (up 203,000), Tagalog (up 163,000), French Creole (up 117,000), and Urdu (up 92,000). Tagalog is spoken in the Philippines.
- Languages with more than a million speakers in the United States in 2015 were: Spanish (40 million), Chinese (3.3 million), Tagalog (1.7 million), Vietnamese (1.5 million), French (1.3 million), Arabic (1.2 million), and Korean (1.1 million).
- Although all the data has not been released for 2015, what has been released indicates that nearly one in four public school students now speaks a language other than English at home.
- Many of those who speak a foreign language at home are not immigrants. In fact, half of the growth in foreign-language speakers since 2010 is among those born in the United States. Overall, 44 percent (28.5 million) of those who speak a language other than English at home are U.S.-born.3
- Of those who speak a foreign language at home, 26 million (40 percent) told the Census Bureau that they speak English less than very well. This figure is entirely based on the opinions of the respondents; the Census Bureaus does not directly measure language skills.
- States with the largest share of their populations speaking a foreign language at home in 2015 were: California (45 percent), Texas (35 percent), New Mexico (34 percent), New York (31 percent), New Jersey (31 percent), Nevada (30 percent), Florida (29 percent), Arizona (27 percent), Hawaii (26 percent), Illinois (23 percent), and Massachusetts (23 percent).
- States with the largest percentage increases in the number of foreign-language speakers from 2010 to 2015 were: North Dakota (up 30 percent); Wyoming (up 24 percent); Maryland (up 17 percent); West Virginia (up 16 percent); Oklahoma and Delaware (both up 15 percent); Florida, Nevada, and Utah (each up 14 percent); and Georgia, Minnesota, and Kentucky (each up 13 percent).
- States with the largest percentage increases in foreign-language speakers from 1980 to 2015 were: Nevada (up 1,005 percent), Georgia (up 916 percent), North Carolina (up 729 percent), Virginia (up 460 percent), Tennessee (up 414 percent), Arkansas (up 408 percent), Washington (up 386 percent), Florida (up 356 percent), South Carolina (up 339 percent), Oregon (up 336 percent), and Maryland (up 335 percent).
Data Sources. In September of this year, the Census Bureau released some of the data from the 2015 American Community Survey (ACS). The survey reflects the U.S. population as of July 1, 2015. The ACS is by far the largest survey taken by the federal government each year and includes over two million households.4 The Census Bureau has posted some of the results from the ACS to American FactFinder on the Census Bureau website.5 It has not released the public-use version of the ACS for researchers to download and analyze. However a good deal of information can be found at FactFinder. Unless otherwise indicated, the information in this analysis comes directly from FactFinder.
There are three language questions in the ACS for 2010 and 2015. The first asks whether each person in the survey speaks a language other than English at home. The second, for those who answer “yes”, asks what language the person speaks. The third 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 report 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, and foreign students. 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.6
1 Figures for language use in 2014 can be found in our prior analysis based on the 2014 ACS; see Steven A. Camarota and Karen Zeigler, “One in Five U.S. Residents Speaks Foreign Language at Home”, Center for Immigration Studies, October 2015.
2 Unfortunately, the Census Bureau has not released the public-use data for 2015 yet, but we do know from the 2014 public-use ACS data, which has been released, that 22.7 percent of students in public schools spoke a language other than English at home in that year. We also know that in 2014, 21.8 percent of all school-age children ages five to 17 (in public or private schools) spoke a language other than English. The data released so far from the 2015 ACS shows 22.2 percent of all school-age children (in public or private schools) spoke a language other than English. Based on the pattern in 2014, we estimate that 23 percent of public school students in 2015 spoke a language other than English at home. It should be pointed out that immigrants are more likely to send their children to public schools than are natives. As a result, foreign-language students comprise a somewhat larger share of students in public schools than they do of the overall school-age population.
3 Of the native-born who speak a language other than English at home, 10.2 million (35.7 percent) are under age 18, the remaining 18.3 million (64.3 percent) are adults.
6 The Department of Homeland Security uses the ACS as the basis for its estimates of the illegal immigrant population. See their most recent iteration of the unauthorized immigrant population: Bryan Baker and Nancy Rytina, “Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2012”, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, March 2013.