Humanities Indicators
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Multilingualism
(Updated April 2016)

Because Americans’ multilingualism has implications not only for the nation’s ability to compete in a global marketplace but for its capacity to develop and execute effective foreign policy, the extent to which Americans are fluent in multiple languages is an important question. The data indicate that a small but growing portion of the population speaks two or more languages.

Findings and Trends

  • From 1980 to 2014, the percentage of Americans age 18 or older who were multilingual rose from 9.2% to 15.7% (Indicator V-5a). Multilingualism is defined in this case as individuals who (1) report speaking a language other than English at home and (2) characterize themselves as speaking English “well” or “very well.”
  • In 2014, the majority (56.2%) of multilingual Americans age 18 or older spoke Spanish or Spanish Creole in addition to English (Indicator V-5b). Approximately a fifth of multilinguals spoke another Indo-European language, and 15.6% spoke an Asian or Pacific Island language. Included among the remaining 7.5% of multilingual Americans (whose home language is labeled “Other” in the graph) are those individuals who spoke indigenous languages of North, Central, and South America; Semitic languages (including Arabic); and languages of Africa. (For details as to the languages included in this category and the others used in Indicator V-5b, see the supporting table).
  • The General Social Survey (GSS) provides another measure of the extent of multilingualism in the contemporary United States. Data from the GSS can be used to estimate the share of adult Americans capable of completing the survey in English who also report speaking another language well or very well. In 2000, 8.1% of Americans age 18 or older described themselves as having this level of proficiency in a non-English language (Indicator V-5c). This share grew steadily and by 2014 had more than doubled, with 20.5% of the adult population reporting multilingualism.
  • The GSS also asks multilingual Americans where they acquired their fluency in the non-English language. In 2006, the most recent year for which such data were collected, over three-quarters of American multilinguals had learned the non-English language at home (Indicator V-5d).
V-5a: Percentage of Adults Who Speak a Language Other than English at Home and Report Speaking English “Well” or “Very Well,” 1980–2014*

* Adults are defined as people age 18 or older.

Source:For 1980–2000: U.S. Census Bureau, Decennial Census. For 2010 and later: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey (ACS) Public-Use Microdata Sample.

About this DataRelated Indicators
../cmsData/xls/indV-5a.xls../cmsData/ppt/V-5a.ppt../cmsData/pdf/V-5a.pdf
V-5b: Home Language of Adults Who Speak a Language Other than English at Home and Report Speaking English “Well” or “Very Well,” 2014*

* Adults are defined as people age 18 or older.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey Public-Use Microdata Sample.

About this DataRelated Indicators
../cmsData/xls/indV-5b_1.xls../cmsData/ppt/V-5b.ppt../cmsData/pdf/V-5b.pdf
V-5c: Percentage of English-Speaking Adults Who Report Speaking Another Language “Well” or “Very Well,” 2000–2014*

* Adults are defined as people age 18 or older.

Source: NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey.

About this DataRelated Indicators
../cmsData/ppt/V-5c.ppt../cmsData/pdf/V-5c.pdf
V-5d: Where English-Speaking Adults Who Are Fluent in Another Language Acquired the Non-English Language, 2006*

* Adults are defined as people age 18 or older. “Fluent” is defined as speaking the non-English language “well” or “very well.”

Source: NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey.

About this DataRelated Indicators
../cmsData/xls/indV-5d.xls../cmsData/ppt/V-5d.ppt../cmsData/pdf/V-5d.pdf