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How Many Languages Are Spoken in the United States?

October 28, 2019

Since the earliest immigrants set sail from the old world in search of a new place to call home, America has been one of the world's biggest melting pots for language and culture and most are still prevalent today. So, why isn't English the official language of the United States? Well, it probably has a lot to do with our Founding Fathers. Since English was the primarily the dominant language when the Constitution was being drafted, our leaders didn't want to offend fellow Americans who were much needed to fight for our nation's independence. Although English was the predominant tongue, languages like Dutch, French and German have been spoken since before the founding of the republic.

Oddly enough, for a nation that didn't feel a need to declare a national language, we have been trying to force people to speak and read English since before the ink dried on our Founding Father's signatures. That said, there is no question that English is our nation's de facto language used for business contracts, government documents, court proceedings and everything official. Surprising every attempt lawmakers have made to declare English as an official language over the past 243 years has been to no avail. This could be due to the fact that people from all over the world still migrate to America often adding to the multilingual nature of homes and neighborhoods.

At the time when European settlements began to take hold on North American soil, it was estimated that as many as 250 Native American languages were spoken in the area that formed the United States. That number today is much smaller as many Native tongues have become extinct or are only spoken by a tribe's elders. Other immigrant languages have met a similar fate and fortune in lieu of the 239 million English speakers as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) that collected data on over 350 second languages. As expected, large concentrations of multiple languages spoken in the home tends to occur in metropolitan areas.

While most Americans only speak English, knowing the number of unique languages and language groups provides valuable information to policymakers, planners and researchers regarding an overall measure of English proficiency. According to the ACS, the top ten languages spoken at home include English, Spanish, Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Arabic, French, Korean, Russian and German. Although the ACS does not tabulate the number of Americans that use sign language, estimates indicate as many as half a million people sign when communicating with the hearing impaired. Moreover, English has been declared the official language or one of the official languages by state law in thirty of the fifty states.

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