The most popular second languages in America might surprise you
The number of people in the United States who speak a language other than English at home tripled between 1980 and 2019, according to the US Census Bureau. Approximately 68 million people living in the United States – about 1 in 5 – speak a second language at home. This figure was 23 million in 1980.
“What the country is famous for, he says, is its melting pot,” says Dina Arrayed, a California mom of three who grew up speaking Arabic at home. “So, it’s good that it’s not mainly just English. There is a group of immigrants here.”
Arabic is one of the five most spoken second languages in the United States. Arid, who speaks mostly English to her children, tries to teach them a little Arabic.
“Growing up honestly, I had cousins who didn’t learn Arabic like I did, and they always kind of, didn’t resent their parents, but they always wished their parents spoke more Arabic to them so they had that language,” she says.
Spanish is by far the most popular second language in the United States, with more than 41 million people—12 times more than the most common second language—speaking Spanish at home. Hispanics are the largest minority in the United States. More than half (55%) of Spanish speakers were born in the United States.
Other languages in the top five are Chinese, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.
“My parents also spoke English at home, but they really tried to keep it in, as if I spoke English at school during the day and at night I only spoke Vietnamese so I could keep the language and maintain my mastery of it and not Virginia, whose parents immigrated from Vietnam.”When I was younger, I didn’t understand the significance, but I think now I’m very happy to be able to speak and write at such an outstanding level.”
She was able to use her language skills when she traveled to Vietnam to provide free dental care to poor and underprivileged communities. Many of her peers were also Vietnamese Americans.
“They couldn’t really communicate with the patients because they didn’t have that basic level of ability to speak and understand,” says Nguyen. “I was among the very few young volunteers who were able to talk to patients and communicate with them about what was going on.”
Speakers of Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Arabic were more likely to be naturalized as US citizens than not to have US citizenship at all, according to the Census Bureau.
Raymond John “RJ” Mosuela, a healthcare provider employee in Virginia whose parents are from the Philippines, can’t speak their native language, but says he understands it when spoken to.
“Tagalog, the main dialect of the Philippines, was spoken at home, but it was also mixed with English,” Musuela says. “I am the youngest of three siblings. Two of my older brothers were born in the Philippines. My parents were born in the Philippines and when they came here, they had… My mom will speak to me in Tagalog and I will respond in English.”
Passing on his parents’ indigenous culture to his children is important to Muswela.
“When I finally get married and have kids, I probably won’t teach the language but at least love preserving the food and our own cultural traditions,” he says.
Cathy Airway, a New York-based food writer, uses a language app to try and become more proficient in her mother’s native Mandarin Chinese.
“The funny thing is, my father, who is a white American, also speaks Chinese,” Airway says. “And so my parents used to talk Chinese to themselves when they didn’t want the kids, me and my brother, to hear what they were saying. So, they treated it as a secret language.”
While more people than ever before speak a second language at home, the Census Bureau reports that the number of people who speak only English at home has also increased — by about 25% — from 187 million in 1980 to 241 million in 2019.
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