Diversity and Language in the U.S.A.
Have you ever walked the streets of a big city like New York or San Francisco and paid attention to the variations in languages you hear? Even in smaller U.S. cities, it’s not uncommon to hear at least five different languages spoken over the course of a 30-minute walk.
The fact is, while you may surround yourself with people who speak only one or two languages predominantly, if you listen closely, you’ll start to feel the diversity of culture in the languages you hear being spoken. Consider how much awareness of our differences changes our perspective.
A Diverse Culture. A Diverse Country.
We were all taught in school that America is a “melting pot.” We are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are Native American, your ancestors likely came to America (or were brought here) from different countries around the world.
Many American families honor the cultural traditions associated with their ethnic backgrounds. Given this vast diversity, it’s no surprise that there are millions of people speaking their native tongues, living in all corners of the country.
According to the most recent U.S. census data, nearly 68 million people spoke a language other than English at home in 2019. The number of people in the United States who spoke a language other than English at home nearly tripled from 23.1 million (about 1 in 10) in 1980 to 67.8 million (almost 1 in 5).
If we break this data down by county, the findings are even more interesting.
In counties where at least 10 percent of people speak a language other than English at home:
- Spanish is spoken in 708 counties.
- Native American languages are spoken in 29 counties.
- German is spoken in 21 counties.
- French is spoken in 15 counties.
- Pacific Island languages are spoken in 5 counties.
Also, while English is spoken in at least 90 percent of homes in 2,347 counties, English is not the official language of the U.S. In fact, there is no declared official language in the U.S and the number of Americans who speak another language besides English is on the rise.
The Origins of the Patchwork of Languages
Now let’s look at some of the most popular languages spoken in different regions of the U.S. and understand why these languages took root and rose in popularity. Some of the origin stories here may surprise you.
Spanish-speaking people from Mexico and Latin American countries have settled in various hubs throughout the South. In fact, Spanish has been spoken in the U.S. just as long as English.
Travel through the southern—especially southwestern—states and you will find communities where they speak almost exclusively Spanish. Some estimates pin the number of native Spanish-speaking Americans at 41 million. Combine this with the nearly 11 million who are bilingual (fluent in both Spanish and English) and the U.S. actually has more Spanish-speaking people than Spain!
Some of the largest populations of Chinese speakers in the U.S. can be found in New York, Washington, Arkansas, Missouri, and Utah. Currently, more than 5 million Chinese Americans live across the U.S.
When Chinese immigrants first settled in America in the 19th century, many were drawn here to participate in the Gold Rush. So, while you’ll certainly find many Chinese and Mandarin speakers living in New York and other East Coast cities, the largest populations can be found on the West Coast. In fact, the first Chinese settlement to be known as Chinatown was in San Francisco.
Many refugees from the Middle East have settled in Canada and in the U.S. over the years. There are just under 1 million Arabic speakers living in the U.S. from countries such as Syria, Palestine, and Jerusalem. Many entered through Canada and ended up in the eastern part of Michigan. Large communities of Arabic speakers can also be found in Tennessee and West Virginia.
If you don’t live in a community with strong German heritage, you may be surprised to realize there are more than 49 million Americans with German ancestry. German speakers live in Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and South Carolina. Second only to Spanish speakers, Germans have a long history of emigrating to the U.S.
Immigration from the Korean peninsula to the U.S. has increased dramatically since the 1960s. Recent figures show approximately 1 million Korean immigrants settled in the U.S.—most from South Korea. This accounts for about 2.4 percent of the immigrant population in the country.
Following the Immigration Act of 1965, the immigrant population in the U.S. grew significantly and Korean immigrants accounted for a large percentage of the increase. As the political and economic systems in South Korea have improved, there are fewer incentives for Korean people to emigrate to the U.S, however.
It probably comes as no surprise that French-speaking people live in Louisiana (many, in the French Quarter), but there are also communities of francophiles living in North Carolina, Maryland, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. The “French Wave” dates back to the 1700s when ports along the coast of Louisiana were popular hubs for commerce. Additionally, Thomas Jefferson was notorious for appreciating French culture and often traveled to France.
Today, there are approximately 1.3 million Americans who speak fluent French and many international schools teach French to students in the U.S.
Immigration on a large-scale from Vietnam to the U.S. began at the end of the Vietnam War. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the U.S. sponsored evacuation of an estimated 125,000 Vietnamese refugees. The Vietnamese immigrant population has grown significantly since then doubling every decade between 1980 and 2000, then increasing by 26 percent in the 2000s.
As of 2017, more than 1.3 million Vietnamese speakers reside in the U.S. settling in states like Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Kansas, Iowa, and Mississippi.
The list above barely scratches the surface when it comes to the patchwork of languages spoken in homes across the U.S. The big lesson to learn from looking at all of these language origin stories is that the U.S. continues to be a place that attracts people from all over the world.
We live in a more diverse country than many of us might guess by simply looking around our own neighborhoods. What does this mean for global businesses? In acknowledgement of the diversity of languages spoken in the United States, the Census Bureau disseminated materials for the 2020 Census in 59 different languages other than English, including 23 languages that originated in Asia.
If you aren’t considering how to expand communications about your products to an audience speaking a diverse set of languages, it may be time to reconsider.
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