America’s Most Popular Second Languages 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. Nearly 68 million people who live in the United States – about 1 in 5 – speak a second language at home. This number was 23 million in 1980.
“It says what the country is known for, it’s a melting pot,” says Dina Arid, a California mother of three who grew up also speaking Arabic at home. “So it’s good that it’s not just English. There are a lot of immigrants here.
Arabic is one of the five most widely spoken second languages in the United States. Arid, who mainly speaks English to his children, tries to teach them some Arabic.
“Growing up honestly, I had cousins who didn’t learn Arabic like me and they always sort of didn’t feel resentment towards their parents, but always wished their parents would speak to them more. in Arabic so that they have 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 other most common second languages - speaking Spanish at home. Hispanics are the largest minority group in the United States. More than half (55%) of Spanish speakers were born in the United States.
The other top 5 languages are Chinese, Tagalog and Vietnamese.
“My parents also spoke English at home but they really tried to keep it, like I spoke English at school during the day and at night I only spoke Vietnamese just so I could keep the language and maintain my master’s degree and not lose it,” says Jenny Nguyen, a dental student from Virginia, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam. “When I was younger, I didn’t understand the importance, but I think now I am very happy to be able to speak and write at such a competent level.”
She was able to use her language skills when she traveled to Vietnam to provide free dental care to poor and underserved communities. Many of his peers were also Vietnamese Americans.
“They couldn’t really communicate with the patients because they didn’t have that basic level to be able to speak and understand,” Nguyen explains. “I was one of the very few young volunteers who could talk to the patients and explain to them what was going on.”
According to the Census Bureau, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and Arabic speakers were more likely to be naturalized U.S. citizens than to have no U.S. citizenship at all.
Raymond John “RJ” Mosuela, a healthcare recruiter from Virginia whose parents are from the Philippines, doesn’t speak their native language but says he understands when spoken to.
“Tagalog, the main dialect of the Philippines, was spoken in the house, but it also mixed with English,” says Mosuela. “I am the youngest of three brothers. Two of my older brothers were born in the Philippines. Both my parents were born in the Philippines and when they came here they had me…my mother will speak to me in Tagalog and I will respond in English.
Transmitting the culture of origin from her parents to her children is important to Mosuela.
“When I eventually get married and have kids, maybe I won’t teach the language, but at least enjoy preserving the food and our own cultural traditions,” he says.
Cathy Erway, a New York-based food writer, uses a language app to try to get a better grasp of her mother’s Mandarin Chinese.
“The funny thing is, my dad, who is white American, also speaks Chinese,” Erway says. “And so my parents would talk to each other in Chinese when they didn’t want the kids, me and my brother, to hear what they were saying. So they treated it like that like a secret language.
As more people than ever speak a second language at home, the Census Bureau reports that the number of people who spoke only English at home has also increased – by around 25% – from 187 million in 1980. to 241 million in 2019.