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Languages of the United States

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Title: Languages of the United States  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Culture of the United States, Languages of North America, Alaska, Hawaii, Economy of the United States
Collection: American Culture, Demographics of the United States, Languages of North America, Languages of the United States
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Languages of the United States

Languages of the United States
Official languages None at federal level
Main languages English 80%, Spanish 12.4%, other Indo-European 3.7%, Asian and Pacific island languages 3%, other languages 0.9% (2009 survey by the Census Bureau)
Indigenous languages Navajo, Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Dakota, Western Apache, Keres, Cherokee, Zuni, Ojibwe, O'odham,[1]
Main immigrant languages Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, French, Vietnamese, German, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Italian, Portuguese[3]
Sign languages American Sign Language,
Hawai'i Sign Language,
Plains Indian Sign Language

Many languages are used, or historically have been used in the United States. The most commonly used language is English. There are also many languages indigenous to North America or to U.S. states or holdings in the Pacific region. Languages brought to the country by colonists or immigrants from Europe, Asia, or other parts of the world make up a large portion of the languages currently used; several languages, including creoles and sign languages, have also developed in the United States. Approximately 337 languages are spoken or signed by the population, of which 176 are indigenous to the area. Fifty-two languages formerly spoken in the country's territory are now extinct.[4]

The most common language in the United States is known as American English. English is the de facto national language of the United States; in 2007, 80% of the population solely spoke it, and some 95% claimed to speak it "well" or "very well".[5] 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,[6][7] but none of these bills has 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.

Since the 1965 Immigration Act, Spanish is the second most common language in the country, and is spoken by approximately 35 million people.[8] The United States holds the world's fifth largest Spanish-speaking population, outnumbered only by Mexico, Spain, Colombia, and Argentina. Throughout the Southwestern United States, long-established Spanish-speaking communities coexist with large numbers of more recent Hispanophone 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.[9]

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.[10][11] Italian, Polish, and French 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 the older generations die. Russian is also spoken by immigrant populations.

Tagalog and Vietnamese have over one million speakers each 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.[12]

Native American languages are spoken in smaller pockets of the country, 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.


  • Census statistics 1
  • Official language status 2
    • States that are de facto bilingual 2.1
    • Status of other languages 2.2
  • Indigenous languages 3
    • Native American languages 3.1
      • Statistics 3.1.1
      • Native American sign languages 3.1.2
    • Austronesian languages 3.2
      • Hawaiian 3.2.1
      • Samoan 3.2.2
      • Chamorro 3.2.3
      • Carolinian 3.2.4
  • Main languages 4
    • English 4.1
    • Spanish 4.2
    • French 4.3
    • German 4.4
    • Chinese 4.5
    • Tagalog 4.6
    • Vietnamese 4.7
    • Italian 4.8
    • Arabic 4.9
    • Cherokee 4.10
    • Dutch 4.11
    • Finnish 4.12
    • Russian 4.13
    • Hebrew 4.14
    • Ilocano 4.15
    • Indian Languages 4.16
    • Irish 4.17
    • Khmer (Cambodian) 4.18
    • Polish 4.19
    • Portuguese 4.20
    • Scottish Gaelic 4.21
    • Swedish 4.22
    • Welsh 4.23
    • Yiddish 4.24
  • New American languages, dialects, and creoles 5
    • African American Vernacular English 5.1
    • Chinuk Wawa or Chinook Jargon 5.2
    • Gullah 5.3
    • Hawai'i Creole English 5.4
    • Louisiana Creole French 5.5
    • Outer Banks languages 5.6
    • Pennsylvania German 5.7
    • Texas Silesian 5.8
    • Tangier Islander 5.9
    • Chicano English 5.10
  • Sign languages 6
    • American Sign Language 6.1
      • Black American Sign Language 6.1.1
    • Hawaii Pidgin Sign Language 6.2
    • Martha's Vineyard Sign Language 6.3
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • Bibliography 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

Census statistics

Language Spoken at Home
(U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2009)
Spanish speakers in the United States
Year Number of Spanish speakers Percent of
US population
1980 11 million 5%
1990 17.3 million 7%
2000 28.1 million 10%
2010 37 million 13%
2012 38.3 million 13%
2020 (projected) 40 million 14%

According to the American Community Survey 2009, endorsed by the United States Census Bureau, the main languages by number of speakers older than five are:

  1. English – 229 million
  2. Spanish – 35 million
  3. Chineses – 2.6 million + (mainly Mandarin speakers, and speakers of Yue dialects such as Cantonese and Taishanese, and other Chinese dialects)
  4. Tagalog – 1.5 million + (Most Filipinos may also know other Philippine languages, e.g. Ilokano, Pangasinan, Bikol languages, and Visayan languages.)
  5. French – 1.3 million
  6. Vietnamese – 1.3 million
  7. German – 1.1 million (High German) + German dialects like Pennsylvania German, Hutterite German, Plautdietsch, Texas German
  8. Korean – 1.0 million
  9. Russian – 881,000
  10. Arabic – 845,000
  11. Italian – 754,000
  12. Portuguese – 731,000
  13. French Creole – 659,000
  14. Polish – 594,000
  15. Hindi – 561,000
  16. Japanese – 445,000
  17. Persian – 397,000
  18. Urdu – 356,000
  19. Gujarati – 341,000
  20. Greek – 326,000
  21. Serbo-Croatian – 269,000
  22. Armenian – 243,000
  23. Hebrew – 222,000
  24. Cambodian – 202,000
  25. Hmong - 193,179
  26. Navajo – 169,009
  27. Thai - 152,679
  28. Yiddish - 148,155
  29. Laotian - 146,297

Additionally, modern estimates indicate that American Sign Language was signed by as many as 500,000 Americans, as of 1972--the last official survey . . . this would project to a number between 860,000 and 900,000 users currently. (Although various cultural factors, such as passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, have resulted in far greater educational opportunities for deaf children, which could double or triple the number of current ASL users.).[18]

The total sample size for these figures is 286 million people.

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 are large numbers of non-English speakers in an area.

As part of what has been called the English-only movement, some states have adopted legislation granting official status to English. As of October 2014, out of 50 states, 31 had established English as the official language, and Hawaii had established both English and Hawaiian as official.[19]

In 2014, three more states, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, considered enacting English as their official state language.[20]

States that are de facto bilingual

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.[32]

In New Mexico, although the state constitution does not specify an official language, laws are published in English and Spanish, and government materials and services are legally required (by Act) to be made accessible to speakers of both languages.[33]

Percentage of people 5 years and over who speak Spanish at home: 2008.
Second most prevalent language in each US state.

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.[34] Nonetheless, Arizona law requires the distribution of voting ballots in languages such as Navajo and Tohono O'odham in certain counties.[35]

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

Indigenous languages

Native American languages

Native American languages predate European settlement of the New World. In a few parts of the U.S. (mostly on Indian reservations), they continue to be spoken fluently. Most of these languages are endangered, although there are efforts to revive them. Normally the fewer the speakers of a language the greater the degree of endangerment, but there are many small Native American language communities in the Southwest (Arizona and New Mexico) which continue to thrive despite their small size. In 1929, speaking of indigenous Native American languages, linguist Edward Sapir observed:

"Few people realize that within the confines of the United States there is spoken today a far greater variety of languages ... than in the whole of Europe. We may go further. We may say, quite literally and safely, that in the state of California alone there are greater and more numerous linguistic extremes than can be illustrated in all the length and breadth of Europe."[36]

According to the 2000 Census and other language surveys, the largest Native American language-speaking community by far is the Navajo. Navajo is an Athabascan language with 178,000 speakers, primarily in the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, in addition to smaller numbers of speakers across the country. Dakota is a Siouan language with 18,000 speakers in the US alone (22,000 including speakers in Canada), not counting 6,000 speakers of the closely related Lakota. Most speakers live in the states of North Dakota and South Dakota. Central Alaskan Yup'ik is an Eskimo-Aleut language with 16,000 speakers, most of whom live in Alaska. Cherokee belongs to the Iroquoian language family, and had about 22,000 speakers as of 2005.[37]

The Cherokee have the largest tribal affiliation in the U.S., but most are of mixed ancestry and do not speak the language. Recent efforts to preserve and increase the Cherokee language in Oklahoma and the Cherokee Indian reservation in North Carolina have been productive. Western Apache, with 12,500 speakers, is a Southern Athabaskan language closely related to Navajo, but not mutually intelligible with it. Most speakers live in Arizona. The O'odham language, spoken by the Pima and the Tohono O'odham, is a Uto-Aztecan language with more than 12,000 speakers, most of whom live in central and southern Arizona and northern Sonora.

Choctaw has 11,000 speakers. One of the Muskogean language family, like Seminole and Alabama. Keres has 11,000 speakers. A language isolate, the Keres are the largest of the Pueblo nations. The Keres pueblo of Acoma is the oldest continually inhabited community in the United States. Zuni has 10,000 speakers. Zuni is a language isolate mostly spoken in a single pueblo, Zuni, the largest in the U.S. Ojibwe has 7,000 speakers (about 55,000 including speakers in Canada). The Algonquian language family includes populous languages like Cree in Canada.

Many other languages have been spoken within the current borders of the United States. The following is a list of 28 language families (groups of demonstrably related languages) indigenous to the territory of the continental United States.

In addition to the above list of families, there are many languages in the United States that are sufficiently well-known to attempt to classify but which have not been shown to be related to any other language in the world. These 25 language isolates are listed below. With further study, some of these will likely prove to be related to each other or to one of the established families. There are also larger and more contentious proposals such as Penutian and Hokan.

Since the languages in the Americas have a history stretching for about 17,000 to 12,000 years, current knowledge of American languages is limited. There are doubtless a number of languages that were spoken in the Americas that are missing from historical record.


Native American sign languages

A sign-language trade pidgin, known as Plains Indian Sign Language or Plains Standard, arose among the Plains Indians. Each signing nation had a separate signed version of their oral language, that was used by the hearing, and these were not mutually intelligible. Plains Standard was used to communicate between these nations. It seems to have started in Texas and then spread north, through the Great Plains, as far as British Columbia. There are still a few users today, especially among the Crow, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Unlike other sign languages developed by hearing people, it shares the spatial grammar of deaf sign languages.

Austronesian languages


Hawaiian is an official state language of Hawaii as prescribed in the Constitution of Hawaii. Hawaiian has 1,000 native speakers. Formerly considered critically endangered, Hawaiian is showing signs of language renaissance. The recent trend is based on new Hawaiian language immersion programs of the Hawaii State Department of Education and the University of Hawaii, as well as efforts by the Hawaii State Legislature and county governments to preserve Hawaiian place names. In 1993, about 8,000 could speak and understand it; today estimates range up to 27,000. Hawaiian is related to the Māori language spoken by around 150,000 New Zealanders and Cook Islanders as well as the Tahitian language which is spoken by another 120,000 people of Tahiti.


Samoan is an official territorial language of American Samoa. Samoans make up 90% of the population, and most people are bilingual.


Chamorro is co-official in the Mariana Islands, both in the territory of Guam and in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. In Guam, the indigenous Chamorro people make up about 60% of the population.


Carolinian is also co-official in the Northern Marianas, where only 14% of people speak English at home.

Main languages

A trash can in Seattle labeled in four languages: English, Chinese (垃圾), Vietnamese (should be rác), and Spanish. Tagalog also uses the Spanish word.

Some of the first European languages to be spoken in the U.S. are English, Dutch, German, French, and Spanish.

From the mid-19th century on, the nation had large numbers of immigrants who spoke little or no English, and throughout the country state laws, constitutions, and legislative proceedings appeared in the languages of politically important immigrant groups. There have been bilingual schools and local newspapers in such languages as German, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Norwegian, Greek, Polish, Swedish, Romanian, Czech, Japanese, Yiddish, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Welsh, Cantonese, Bulgarian, Dutch, Portuguese and others, despite opposing English-only laws that, for example, illegalized church services, telephone conversations, and even conversations in the street or on railway platforms in any language other than English, until the first of these laws was ruled unconstitutional in 1923 (Meyer v. Nebraska).

Currently, Asian languages account for the majority of languages spoken in immigrant communities: Korean, the varieties of Chinese, and various Indian or South Asian languages like Punjabi, Hindi/Urdu, Kannada, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam, as well as Arabic, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Persian, and others.

Typically, immigrant languages tend to be lost through assimilation within two or three generations, though there are some groups such as the Cajuns (French), Pennsylvania Dutch (German) in a state where large numbers of people were heard to speak it before the 1950s, and the original settlers of the Southwest (Spanish) who have maintained their languages for centuries.


English language distribution in the United States.

English was inherited from British colonization, and it is spoken by the majority of the population. It serves as the de facto official language, the language in which government business is carried out. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 80% spoke only English at Home and all but 57,097,826 of U.S. residents speak English "well" or "very well".[39]

American English is different from British English in terms of spelling (a classic example being the dropped "u" in words such as color/colour), grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and slang usage. The differences are not usually a barrier to effective communication between an American English and a British English speaker, but there are certainly enough differences to cause occasional misunderstandings, usually surrounding slang or region dialect differences.

Some states, like California, have amended their constitutions to make English the only official language, but in practice, this only means that official government documents must at least be in English, and does not mean that they should be exclusively available only in English. For example, the standard California Class C driver's license examination is available in 32 different languages.[40]


Spanish language distribution in the United States.

Spanish was also inherited from colonization and is sanctioned as official in the territory of Puerto Rico. Spanish is also taught in various regions as a second language, especially in areas with large Hispanic populations such as the Southwestern United States along the border with Mexico, as well as Florida, parts of California, the District of Columbia, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York. In Hispanic communities across the country, bilingual signs in both Spanish and English may be quite common. Furthermore, numerous neighborhoods exist (such as Washington Heights in New York City or Little Havana in Miami) in which entire city blocks will have only Spanish language signs and Spanish-speaking people.

In addition to Spanish-speaking Hispanic populations, younger generations of non-Hispanics in the United States seem to be learning Spanish in larger numbers due to the growing Hispanic population and increasing popularity of Latin American movies and music performed in the Spanish language. A 2009 American Community Survey conducted by the United States Census Bureau, showed that Spanish is the primary language spoken at home by over 35 million people aged 5 or older,[13] making the United States the world's fifth-largest Spanish-speaking community, outnumbered only by Mexico, Spain, Colombia, and Argentina.[41][42]

Spanglish is a code-switching variant of Spanish and English and is spoken in areas with large bilingual populations of Spanish and English speakers, such as along the Mexico – United States border (California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas), Florida, and New York City.


French language distribution in the United States. Counties and parishes marked in yellow are those where 6% to 12% of the population speak French at home; brown, 12% to 18%; red, over 18%. Cajun French and French-based creole languages are not included even though the Creole dialects are spoken throughout the U.S. and taught in many U.S. schools.

French, the fourth most-common language (when Chinese dialects are combined), is spoken mainly by the Louisiana Creole, native French, Cajun, Haitian, and French-Canadian populations. It is widely spoken in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and in Louisiana, with notable Francophone enclaves in St. Clair County, Michigan, many rural areas of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the northern San Francisco Bay area.

Three varieties of French developed within what is now the United States in colonial times: Louisiana French, Missouri French, and New England French (essentially a variant of Canadian French).[43] French is the second de facto language in the states of Louisiana (where the French dialect of Cajun predominates) and Maine. The largest French-speaking communities in the United States reside in Northeast Maine; Hollywood and Miami, Florida; New York City; certain areas of rural Louisiana; and small minorities in Vermont and New Hampshire. Many of the New England communities are connected to the dialect found across the border in Quebec or New Brunswick. More than 13 million Americans possess primary French heritage, but only 2 million speak French or French Creole at home.


German language distribution in the United States.

German was a widely spoken language in some of the colonies, especially Pennsylvania, where a number of German-speaking religious minorities settled to escape persecution in Europe. Another wave of settlement occurred when Germans fleeing the failure of 19th Century German revolutions emigrated to the United States. A large number of these German immigrants settled in the urban areas, with neighborhoods in many cities being German-speaking and numerous local German language newspapers and periodicals established. German farmers also took up farming around the country, including the Texas Hill Country, at this time. The language was widely spoken until the United States entered World War I.

In the early twentieth century, German was the most widely studied foreign language in the United States, and prior to World War I, more than 6% of American school-children received their primary education exclusively in German, though some of these Germans came from areas outside of Germany proper. Currently, more than 49 million Americans claim German ancestry, the largest self-described ethnic group in the U.S., but less than 4% of them speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2005 American Community Survey.[44] The Amish speak a dialect of German known as Pennsylvania German. One reason for this decline of German language was the perception during both World Wars that speaking the language of the enemy was unpatriotic; foreign language instruction was banned in places during the First World War. Unlike earlier waves, they were more concentrated in cities, and integrated quickly.

There is a myth (known as the Muhlenberg Vote) that German was to be the official language of the U.S., but this is inaccurate and based on a failed early attempt to have government documents translated into German.[45] The myth also extends to German being the second official language of Pennsylvania; however, Pennsylvania has no official language. Although more than 49 million Americans claim they have German ancestors, only 1.24 million Americans speak German at home. Many of these people are either Amish and Mennonites or Germans having newly immigrated (e.g. for professional reasons).


Over 2.6 million Americans speak some variety of Chinese, making it the third most-spoken language in the country. Until the late 20th century, Yue dialects including Taishanese and Cantonese were the most common among immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, especially in California. Since the opening of the People's Republic of China, Standard Chinese (Mandarin), the official language in the PRC and Taiwan, has become increasingly prevalent.[46] Many young Americans not of Chinese or Taiwanese descent have become interested in learning Mandarin.[46]

In New York City at least, although Mandarin is spoken as a native language among only 10% of Chinese speakers, it is used as a secondary dialect among the greatest number of them and is on its way to replace Cantonese as their lingua franca.[47]


Tagalog language distribution in the United States.

Tagalog speakers were already present in the United States as early as the late sixteenth century as sailors contracted by the Spanish colonial government. In the eighteenth century, they established settlements in Louisiana, such as Saint Malo. After the American annexation of the Philippines, the number of Tagalog speakers steadily increased, as Filipinos began to migrate to the U.S. as students or contract laborers. Their numbers, however, decreased upon Philippine independence, as many Filipinos were repatriated.

Today, Tagalog, together with its standardized form Filipinos are the second largest Asian ethnic group in the United States, Tagalog is the second most spoken Asian language in the country. Taglish, a form of code-switching between Tagalog and English, is also spoken by a number of Filipino Americans.

Tagalog is also taught at some universities where a significant number of Filipinos exist. As it is the national and most spoken language of the Philippines, most Filipinos in the United States are proficient in Tagalog in addition to their local regional language.


Spread of the Vietnamese language in the United States

According to the 2010 Census, there are over 1.5 million Americans who identify themselves as Vietnamese in origin, ranking fourth among the Asian American groups and forming the largest Overseas Vietnamese population.

Orange County, California is home to the largest concentration of ethnic Vietnamese outside Vietnam, especially in its Little Saigon area. Other significant Vietnamese communities are found in the metropolitan areas of San Jose, Houston, Seattle, Northern Virginia, and New Orleans. Similarly to other overseas Vietnamese communities in Western countries (except France), the Vietnamese population in the United States was established following the Fall of Saigon in 1975 and communist takeover of South Vietnam following the Vietnam War.


Current distribution of the Italian language in the United States.

The Italian language and its various dialects has been widely spoken in the United States for more than one hundred years, primarily due to large-scale immigration from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century.

In addition to Standard Italian learned by most people today, there has been a strong representation of the dialects and languages of Southern Italy amongst the immigrant population (Sicilian and Neapolitan in particular). As of 2009, though 15,638,348 American citizens report themselves as Italian Americans, only 753,992 of these report speaking the Italian language at home (0.3264% of the population).


Arabic is spoken by immigrants from the Middle East as well as many Muslim Americans. The highest concentrations of native Arabic speakers reside in heavily urban areas like Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles. Detroit and the surrounding areas of Michigan boast a significant Arabic-speaking population including many Arab Christians of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian descent.

Arabic is used for religious purposes by Muslim Americans and by some Arab Christians (notably Catholics of the Melkite and Maronite Churches as well as Rum Orthodox, i.e. Antiochian Orthodox Christians). A significant number of educated Arab professionals who immigrate often already know English quite well, as it is widely used in the Middle East. Lebanese immigrants also have a broader understanding of French as do many Arabic-speaking immigrants from North Africa.


Distribution of the Cherokee language

Cherokee is the Iroquoian language spoken by the Cherokee people, and the official language of the Cherokee Nation.[26] Significant numbers of Cherokee speakers of all ages[48] still populate the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, North Carolina and several counties within the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, significantly Cherokee, Sequoyah, Mayes, Adair, and Delaware. Increasing numbers of Cherokee youth are renewing interest in the traditions, history, and language of their ancestors.[48] Cherokee-speaking communities stand at the forefront of language preservation, and at local schools all lessons are taught in Cherokee and thus it serves as the medium of instruction from pre-school on up.[26] Also, church services and traditional ceremonial "stomp" dances are held in the language in Oklahoma and on the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina.[26]


Dutch language distribution in the United States.

There has been a Dutch presence in America since 1602, when the government of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands chartered the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) with the mission of exploring for a passage to the Indies and claiming any uncharted territories for the Dutch republic. In 1664, English troops under the command of the Duke of York (later James II of England) attacked the New Netherland colony. Being greatly outnumbered, director general Peter Stuyvesant surrendered New Amsterdam, with Fort Orange following soon. New Amsterdam was renamed New York, Fort Orange was renamed Fort Albany. Dutch city names can still be found in New York's neighbourhoods. Harlem is Haarlem, Staten Island is Staten Eiland and Brooklyn refers to Breukelen.

Dutch was still spoken in many parts of New York at the time of the Revolution. For example, Alexander Hamilton's wife Eliza Hamilton attended a Dutch-language church during their marriage.

African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth (born 'Isabella Baumfree') was a native speaker of Dutch.

Martin Van Buren, the first President born in the United States following its independence, spoke Dutch as his native language, making him the only President whose first language was not English.

In a 1990 demographic consensus, 3% of surveyed citizens claimed descent from Dutch settlers. Modern estimates place the Dutch American population at 5 million, lagging just a bit behind Scottish Americans and Swedish Americans.

Notable Dutch Americans include the Roosevelts (Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt), Marlon Brando, Thomas Alva Edison, Martin Van Buren and the Vanderbilts. The Roosevelts are direct descendants of Dutch settlers of the New Netherland colony in the 17th century.

Around 136,000 people in the United States still speak the Dutch language at home today. They are concentrated mainly in California (23,500), Florida (10,900), Pennsylvania (9,900), Ohio (9,600), New York (8,700) and Michigan (6,600) (i.e. the city of Holland).[49]

A vernacular dialect of Dutch, known as Jersey Dutch was spoken by a significant number of people in the New Jersey area between the start of the 17th century to the mid-20th century. With the beginning of the 20th century, usage of the language became restricted to internal family circles, with an ever-growing number of people abandoning the language in favor of English. It suffered gradual decline throughout the 20th century, and it ultimately dissipated from casual usage.


Finnish language distribution in the United States.

The first Finnish settlers in America were amongst the settlers who came from Sweden and Finland to New Sweden colony. Most colonists were Finnish. However, the Finnish language was not preserved as well among subsequent generations as Swedish.

Shortly after the Civil War, many Finnish citizens immigrated to the United States, mainly in rural areas of the Midwest (and more specifically in Michigan's Upper Peninsula). Hancock, Michigan, as of 2005, still incorporates bi-lingual street signs written in both English and Finnish.[50] Americans of Finnish origin yield at 800,000 individuals, though only 26,000 speak the language at home. There is a distinctive dialect of English to be found in the Upper Peninsula, known as Yooper. Yuper often has a Finnish cadence and uses Finnish sentence structure with modified English, German, Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish vocabulary. Notable Finnish Americans include Gus Hall, U.S. Communist Party leader, Renny Harlin, film director, and the Canadian-born actress Pamela Anderson. Another Finnish community in the United States is found in Lake Worth, Florida, north of Miami.


Russian language distribution in the United States.

The Russian language is frequently spoken in areas of Alaska, Los Angeles, Seattle, Spokane, Miami, San Francisco, New York City, Philadelphia, Woodburn, Oregon, and Chicago. The Russian-American Company used to own Alaska Territory until selling it after the Crimean War. Russian had always been limited, especially after the assassination of the Romanov dynasty of tsars. Starting in the 1970s and continuing until the mid-1990s, many people from the Soviet Union and later its constituent republics such as Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Uzbekistan have immigrated to the United States, increasing the language's usage in America.

The largest Russian-speaking neighborhoods in the United States are found in Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island in New York City (specifically the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn), parts of Los Angeles, particularly West Los Angeles and West Hollywood, parts of Philadelphia, particularly the Far Northeast and, parts of Miami like Sunny Isles Beach.

Slavic Voice of America media group serves Russian-speaking Americans out of Dallas, TX.


Modern Hebrew is used by some immigrants from Israel and Eastern Europe. Liturgical Hebrew is used as a religious or liturgical language[51] by many of the United States' approximately 7 million[52] Jews.


Like the Tagalogs, the Ilocanos are an Austronesian stock which came from the Philippines. They were the first Filipinos to migrate en masse to the United States. They first entered the State of Hawai'i and worked there in the vast plantations.

As they did in the Philippine provinces of Northern Luzon and Mindanao, they quickly gained importance in the areas where they settled. Thus, the state of Hawai'i became no less different from the Philippines in terms of percentage of Ilocano speakers.

Like Tagalog, Ilocano is also being taught in universities where most of the Filipinos reside.

Indian Languages

There are many Indians in the USA, and they speak various Indian languages. Major Indian languages spoken in the USA include:Telugu ,Tamil, Gujarati, Hindi (over 500,000 people) Punjabi and Marathi .


Up to 37 million Americans have Irish ancestry, many of whose ancestors would have spoken Irish. According to the 2007 American Community Survey, 22,279 people speak Irish at home. As of 2008 it was the 76th most spoken language in the USA.[53]

Khmer (Cambodian)

Between 1981 and 1985 about 150,000 Cambodians resettled in the United States.[54] Before 1975 very few Cambodians came to the United States. Those who did were children of upper-class families sent abroad to attend school. After the fall of Phnom Penh to the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975, some Cambodians managed to escape. In 2007 the American Community Survey reported that there were approximately 200,000 Cambodians living in the United States, making up about 2% percent of the Asian population.


The Polish language is very common in the Chicago metropolitan area. Chicago's largest white ethnic groups are those of Polish descent. The Polish people and the Polish language in Chicago have been very prevalent in the early years of the city, as well as the progression and economical and social development of Chicago. Poles in Chicagoland make up one of the largest ethnically Polish population (650,000 people) in the world comparable to the city of Wrocław, the fourth largest city in Poland. That makes it one of the most important centres of Polonia and the Polish language in the United States, a fact that the city celebrates every Labor Day weekend at the Taste of Polonia Festival in Jefferson Park.[55]


The first Portuguese speakers in America were Jews who had fled the Inquisition; they founded the first Jewish communities, two of which stiil exist: Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. However, by the end of the 18th century the use of Portuguese had been replaced by English. In the late 19th century, many Portuguese, mainly Azoreans and Madeirans, immigrated to the United States, establishing in cities like Providence, Rhode Island, New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Santa Cruz, California. Many of them also moved to Hawaii during its independence.

In the mid-late 20th century there was another surge of Portuguese immigration in America, mainly in the Northeast (New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts). Many Portuguese Americans may include descendants of Portuguese settlers born in Africa (like Angola, Cape Verde, and Mozambique) and Asia (mostly Macau). There were around 1 million Portuguese Americans in the United States by the year 2000. Portuguese (European Portuguese) has been spoken in the United States by small communities of immigrants, mainly in the metropolitan New York City area, like Newark, New Jersey. The Portuguese language is also spoken widely by Brazilian immigrants, established mainly in Miami, New York City and Boston. (Brazilian Portuguese)

Scottish Gaelic

In the 17th and 18th centuries, tens of thousands of Scots from Scotland, and Scots-Irish from the north of Ireland arrived in the American colonies. Today, an estimated 20 million Americans are of Scottish ancestry. The province of Nova Scotia, Canada was the main concentration of Scottish Gaelic speakers in North America (Nova Scotia is Latin for New Scotland). According to the 2007 American Community Survey, 1,445 people speak Scottish Gaelic at home.


Swedish language distribution in the United States.

There has been a Swedish presence in America since the New Sweden colony came into existence in March 1638.

Widespread diaspora of Swedish immigration did not occur until the latter half of the 19th century, bringing in a total of a million Swedes. No other country had a higher percentage of its people leave for the United States except Ireland and Norway. At the beginning of the 20th century, Minnesota had the highest ethnic Swedish population in the world after the city of Stockholm.

3.7% of US residents claim descent from Scandinavian ancestors, amounting to roughly 11–12 million people. According to SIL's Ethnologue, over half a million ethnic Swedes still speak the language, though according to the 2007 American Community Survey only 56,715 speak it at home. Cultural assimilation has contributed to the gradual and steady decline of the language in the US. After the independence of the US from the Kingdom of Great Britain, the government encouraged colonists to adopt the English language as a common medium of communication, and in some cases, imposed it upon them. Subsequent generations of Swedish Americans received education in English and spoke it as their first language. Lutheran churches scattered across the Midwest started abandoning Swedish in favor of English as their language of worship. Swedish newspapers and publications alike slowly faded away.

There are sizable Swedish communities in Minnesota, Ohio, Maryland, Philadelphia and Delaware, along with small isolated pockets in Pennsylvania, San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale, and New York. Chicago once contained a large Swedish enclave called Andersonville on the city's north side.

John Morton, the person who cast the decisive vote leading to Pennsylvania's support for the United States Declaration of Independence, was of Finnish descent. Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden in the 18th century.


Welsh language distribution in the United States.

Up to two million Americans are thought to have Welsh ancestry. However, there is very little Welsh being used commonly in the USA. According to the 2007 American Comminty Survey, 2,285 people speak Welsh at home; primarily spoken in California (415), Florida (225), New York (204), Ohio (135), and New Jersey (130).[56] Some place names, such as Bryn Mawr in Chicago and Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania (English: Big Hill) are Welsh. Several towns in Pennsylvania, mostly in the Welsh Tract, have Welsh namesakes, including Uwchlan, Bala Cynwyd, Gwynedd, and Tredyffrin.


Yiddish has a much longer history in the United States than Hebrew.[57] It has been present since at least the late 19th century and continues to have roughly 148,000 speakers as of the 2009 American Community Survey. Though they came from varying geographic backgrounds and nuanced approaches to worship, immigrant Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia were often united under a common understanding of the Yiddish language once they settled in America, and at one point dozens of publications were available in most East Coast cities. Though it has declined by quite a bit since the end of WWII, it has by no means disappeared. Many Israeli immigrants and expatriates have at least some understanding of the language in addition to Hebrew, and many of the descendants of the great migration of Ashkenazi Jews of the past century pepper their mostly English vocabulary with some loan words. Furthermore, it is definitely a lingua franca alive and well among Orthodox Jewry (particularly hasidic Jewery), particularly in Los Angeles, Miami and New York.[58][59]

New American languages, dialects, and creoles

Several languages have developed on American soil, including creoles and sign languages.

African American Vernacular English

African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also known as Ebonics, is a variety of English spoken by many African Americans, in both rural and urban areas. Not all African Americans speak AAVE and many European Americans do. Indeed, it is generally accepted that Southern American English is part of the same continuum as AAVE.

There is considerable debate among non-linguists as to whether the word "dialect" is appropriate to describe it. However, there is general agreement among linguists and many African Americans that AAVE is part of a historical continuum between creoles such as Gullah and the language brought by English colonists.

Some educators view AAVE as exerting a negative influence on the learning of Proper and Standard English, as numerous AAVE rules differ from the rules of Standard English. Other educators, however, propose that Standard English should be taught as a "second dialect" in areas where AAVE is a strong part of local tradition.

Chinuk Wawa or Chinook Jargon

Chinuk Wawa (or Chinook Jargon) is a Creole language of 700–800 words of French, English, Cree and other Native origins. It is the old trade language of the Pacific Northwest. It was used extensively among both European and Native peoples of the old Oregon Territory, even used in place of English at home for many families. It is estimated that around 250,000 people spoke it at its peak and it was last used extensively in Seattle.


Hawai'i Creole English

Hawaiian Pidgin, more accurately known as Hawai'i Creole English, is commonly used by locals and is considered an unofficial language of the state. This not to be confused with Hawaiian English which is standard American English with Hawaiian words.

Louisiana Creole French

Louisiana Creole French is a French Creole language spoken by the Louisiana Creole people of the state of Louisiana, close to Haitian Creole, Colonial French and Cajun French (language of Acadians deportated from New France after 1755 and the Grand Dérangement). French Creole is spoken by millions of people worldwide, mainly in the United States and Indian Ocean areas.

Outer Banks languages

In the islands of the Outer Banks off North Carolina, several unique English dialects have developed. This is evident on Harkers Island and Ocracoke Island. These dialects are sometimes referred to as "high tider".

Pennsylvania German

Pennsylvania German is a language that traditionally was spoken mainly in Pennsylvania, but that since the 19th century has spread to the Midwest (Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and other states), where the majority of speakers live today. It evolved from the German dialect of the Palatinate brought over to America by the Pennsylvania Dutch people before 1800. Originally spoken by adherents of different Christian denominations (Lutherans, Mennonites, Amish, German Baptists, Catholics) today it is mainly spoken by Amish and Old Order Mennonites.

Texas Silesian

Texas Silesian (Silesian: teksasko gwara) is a language used by Texas Silesians in American settlements from 1852 to the present.

Tangier Islander

Another dialectal isolate is that spoken on Tangier Island, Virginia located in the Chesapeake bay. The dialect is partially derived from English as spoken by English pre-Revolutionary settlers, and partially from the present-day Middle-Atlantic American dialect of English. It also contains some words from the Cornish Language, the Celtic language spoken in Cornwall in southwest England.

Chicano English

A mixture of the Spanish and American English languages spoken by many Hispanics in urban areas and predominantly Latino communities. See also Chicano English and New Mexican Spanish for Mexican-American dialects of the Southwest.

Sign languages

American Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL) is the native language of a number of Deaf and hearing people in America. While some sources have stated that ASL is the second most frequently used non-English language in the US, following Spanish,[60] recent scholarship has pointed out that most of these estimates are based on numbers conflating deafness with ASL use, and that the last actual study of this (in 1972) seems to indicate an upper bound of 500,000 ASL speakers at the time.[18]

Unlike Signed English, ASL is a natural language in its own right, not a manual representation of English.[61]

Black American Sign Language

Black American Sign Language (BASL) developed in the southeastern US, where separate residential schools were maintained for white and black deaf children. BASL shares much of the same vocabulary and grammatical structure as ASL and is generally considered one of its dialects.[60][61][62]

Hawaii Pidgin Sign Language

Hawaii Pidgin Sign Language is moribund. (It is named after Hawaii Pidgin English, but is not itself a pidgin nor related to Hawaii Pidgin. Recent work by linguists uses the name "Hawaii Sign Language".[63])

Martha's Vineyard Sign Language

Martha's Vineyard Sign Language is now extinct. Along with French Sign Language, it was one of two main contributors to American Sign Language.

See also



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  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Campbell, Lyle; & Mithun, Marianne (Eds.). (1979). The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Grimes, Barbara F. (Ed.). (2000). Ethnologue: Languages of the world, (14th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-106-9. Online edition: accessed on December 7, 2004.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Further reading

  • Blatt, Ben. "Tagalog in California, Cherokee in Arkansas." Slate. May 13, 2014.

External links

  • Bilingualism in the United States
  • Detailed List of Languages Spoken at Home for the Population 5 Years and Over by State: U.S. Census 2000
  • Foreign Languages in the U.S. About foreign languages and language learning in the United States
  • How many indigenous American languages are spoken in the United States? By how many speakers?
  • Native Languages of the Americas
  • Ethnologue report for USA
  • Linguistic map of the United States of America
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