Languages of the United States

Published on September 21, 2010 by Aquarius

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English language distribution
in the United States.

English is the de facto national language of the United States, with 82% of the population claiming it as a mother tongue, and some 96% claiming to speak it “well” or “very well”. However, no official language exists at the Federal level. There have been several proposals to make English the national language in amendments to immigration reform bills but none of these bills have become law with the amendment intact. The situation is quite varied at the State and Territorial levels, with some states mirroring the Federal policy of adopting no official language in a de jure capacity, others adopting English alone, others officially adopting English as well as local languages, and still others adopting a policy of de facto bilingualism.

The variety of English spoken in the United States is known as American English, together with Canadian English it makes up the group of dialects known as North American English.

Spanish is the second most common language in the country, and is spoken by over 12% of the population. The United States holds the world’s fifth largest Spanish-speaking population, outnumbered only by Mexico, Spain, Argentina, and Colombia. Throughout the Southwestern United States, long-established Spanish-speaking communities coexist with large numbers of more recent Spanish-speaking immigrants.

Although many new Latin American immigrants are less than fluent in English, nearly all second-generation Hispanic Americans speak English fluently, while only about half still speak Spanish.

According to the 2000 US census, people of German ancestry make up the largest single ethnic group in the United States, and the German language ranks fifth. Italian, Polish, and Greek are still widely spoken among populations descending from immigrants from those countries in the early 20th century, but the use of these languages is dwindling as older generations pass away. Russian is also spoken by immigrant populations.

Tagalog and Vietnamese have over one million speakers in the United States, almost entirely within recent immigrant populations. Both languages, along with the varieties of the Chinese language, Japanese, and Korean, are now used in elections in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Washington.

There is also a population of Native Americans who still speak their native languages, but these populations are decreasing, and the languages are almost never widely used outside of reservations. Hawaiian, although having few native speakers, is an official language along with English at the state level in Hawaii. The state government of Louisiana offers services and documents in French, as does New Mexico in Spanish. Besides English, Spanish, French, German, Navajo and other Native American languages, all other languages are usually learned from immigrant ancestors that came after the time of independence or learned through some form of education.

Approximately 337 languages are spoken or signed by the population, of which 176 are indigenous to the area. 52 languages formerly spoken in the country’s territory are now extinct.

Census statistics
According to the 2000 census, the main languages by number of speakers older than five are:
1. English – 215 million
2. Spanish – 28 million
3. American Sign Language – 2.0 million
4. Chinese languages – 2.0 million + (mostly Cantonese speakers, with a growing group of Mandarin speakers)
5. French – 1.6 million
6. German – 1.4 million (High German) + German dialects like Hutterite German, Texas German, Pennsylvania German, Plautdietsch
7. Tagalog – 1.2 million + (Most Filipinos may also know other Philippine languages, e.g. Ilokano, Pangasinan, Bikol languages, and Visayan languages)
8. Vietnamese – 1.01 million
9. Italian – 1.01 million
10. Korean – 890,000
11. Russian – 710,000
12. Polish – 670,000
13. Arabic – 610,000
14. Portuguese – 560,000
15. Japanese – 480,000
16. French Creole – 450,000 (mostly Louisiana Creole French – 334,500)
17. Greek – 370,000
18. Hindi – 320,000
19. Persian – 310,000
20. Urdu – 260,000
21. Gujarati – 240,000
22. Armenian – 200,000

Official language status

The United States does not have a national official language; nevertheless, English (specifically, American English) is the primary language used for legislation, regulations, executive orders, treaties, federal court rulings, and all other official pronouncements, although there are laws requiring documents such as ballots to be printed in multiple languages when there is a large number of non-English speakers in an area.

States with official English
• Alabama (1990)
• Alaska (1998)
• Arizona (2006))
• Arkansas (1987)
• California (1986)
• Colorado (1988)
• Florida (1988)
• Georgia (1986, 1996)
• Idaho (2007)
• Illinois (1969)
• Indiana (1984
• Iowa (2002)[
• Kansas (2007)
• Kentucky (1984)
• Mississippi (1987)
• Missouri (1998)
• Montana (1995)
• Nebraska (1920)
• New Hampshire (1995)
• North Carolina (1987)
• North Dakota (1987)
• South Carolina (1987)
• South Dakota (1987)
• Tennessee (1984)
• Utah (2000)
• Virginia (1981, 1996)
• Wyoming (1996)
The English-only movement seeks to establish English as the only official language of the entire nation.

States without official English
• Connecticut
• Delaware
• Maine
• Maryland
• Massachusetts
• Michigan
• Minnesota
• Nevada
• New Jersey
• New Mexico
• New York
• Ohio
• Oklahoma
• Oregon
• Pennsylvania
• Rhode Island
• Texas
• Vermont
• Washington
• West Virginia
• Wisconsin

States and territories that are officially bi- or trilingual
• Hawaii (English and Hawaiian) (1978)
• American Samoa (Samoan and English)
• Guam (Chamorro and English)
• Northern Mariana Islands (English, Chamorro, and Carolinian)
• Puerto Rico (Spanish and English) (1993)
States that are de facto bilingual
• Louisiana (English and French legally recognized, although there is no official language) (1974)
• Maine (English and French both de facto)
• New Mexico (English and Spanish both de facto)

Status of other languages

The State of Alaska provides voting information in Iñupiaq, Central Yup’ik, Gwich’in, Siberian Yupik, Koyukon, and Tagalog, as well as English.

California has agreed to allow the publication of state documents in other languages to represent minority groups and immigrant communities. Languages such as Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Persian, Russian, Vietnamese, and Thai appear in official state documents, and the Department of Motor Vehicles publishes in 9 languages

In New Mexico, although the state constitution does not specify an official language, laws are published in English and Spanish, and government material and services are legally required (by Act) to be made accessible to speakers of both languages. Some have asserted that the New Mexico situation is part of the provisions in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; however, no mention of “language rights” is made in the Treaty or in the Protocol of Querétaro, beyond the “Mexican inhabitants” having (1) no reduction of rights below those of citizens of the United States and (2) precisely the same rights as are mentioned in Article III of the Treaty of the Louisiana Purchase and in the Treaty of the Florida Purchase. This would imply that the legal status of the Spanish language in New Mexico and in non-Gadsden Purchase areas of Arizona is the same as of French in Louisiana and certainly not less than that of German in Pennsylvania.

Contrary to belief, the state of Pennsylvania was never officially bilingual, the state has a history of Pennsylvania Dutch German language communities that goes back to the 1650s. There were attempts to recognize German in Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries due to the prevalence of German speakers in the state. This situation prevailed until the 1950s in some rural areas.
The state of New York had state government documents (i.e., vital records) co-written in the Dutch language until the 1920s, in order to preserve the legacy of New Netherland, though England annexed the colony in 1664.

Native American languages are official or co-official on many of the U.S. Indian reservations and pueblos. In Oklahoma before statehood in 1907, territory officials debated whether or not to have Cherokee, Choctaw and Muscogee languages as co-official, but the idea never gained ground.

The issue of bilingualism also applies in the states of Arizona and Texas, while the constitution of Texas has no official language policy. Arizona passed a proposition in the November 7, 2006 general election declaring English as the official language.

Nonetheless, Arizona law requires the distribution of voting ballots in languages such as Navajo and Tohono O’odham in certain counties.

In 2000, the census bureau printed the standard census questionnaires in six languages: English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese (in traditional characters), Vietnamese, and Tagalog.

Source: Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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