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.
* 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.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey Public-Use Microdata Sample.
Source: NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey.
* Adults are defined as people age 18 or older. “Fluent” is defined as speaking the non-English language “well” or “very well.”
In January 2006, President George W. Bush launched the National Security Language Initiative, which was designed to “dramatically increase the number of Americans learning critical need foreign languages such as Arabic, Chinese [Mandarin], Russian, Hindi, Persian, and others through new and expanded programs from kindergarten through university and into the workforce.”* The initiative continues under the Obama administration.
Despite the concern about what is perceived as a national foreign-language deficit, however, existing data on multilingualism are of limited use in gauging the true extent of the country’s achieved fluency in multiple languages. This is true for several reasons. First, such data are based on self-reported information—currently, no system objectively measures and registers individuals’ multilingual capabilities. Second, the national trend data covering the greatest length of time, those collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, reflect a concern with immigrants’ ability to acquire English-language skills.** Thus these data do not capture those individuals who speak English at home and acquired proficiency in another language via formal education or contact with the non-English language in a nondomestic setting; nor do the data account for those who may have learned a language other than English in their childhood homes (and still speak it fluently) but who do not use that language in their own homes as adults. Moreover, Census Bureau data do not measure the extent of individuals’ proficiency in their non-English “home” language. Finally, data collected by the bureau and other organizations do not reveal what share of the population is fluent intwoor more languages that do not include English.
Indicator V-5a displays the relevant Census Bureau data. While a language question has appeared on almost every decennial census since 1870, only since 1980 have respondents been asked not only whether they speak a language other than English but also how proficient they are in English. Although these data cannot measure the full extent of the nation’s multilingualism, they are some of the best available.
An alternative source of data on multilingualism, the General Social Survey, allows for the estimation of the share of English-proficient American adults who speak another language fluently (regardless of the setting in which fluency in the second language was developed; see Indicators V-5c and V-5d).
* U.S. Department of State, “National Security Language Initiative,” Fact Sheet (January 5, 2006). The other languages deemed “critical” are Azeri, Bengali, Gujarati, Japanese, Korean, Marathi, Pashto, Punjabi, Tajik, Turkish, Urdu, and Uzbek.
** The question asked on the discontinued census “long form” and now on the American Community Survey inquires whether an individual speaks a language other than English at home and how well he or she speaks English (to view a sample questionnaire, click here).
For a measure of language skills at the high school level, see “Advanced Placement Exams Taken in the Humanities.”
For trends in course-taking in languages other than English,see “Language Instruction in Elementary and Secondary Schools” and "Postsecondary Course-Taking in Languages Other than English.”
Data from the General Social Survey (GSS), administered by NORC at the University of Chicago, provide a somewhat different estimate of the extent of multilingualism in the United States than that based on U.S. Census Bureau data (see Indicator V-5a). The focus of the GSS is respondents’ proficiency in a language other than English, and thus the survey did not include questions about their proficiency in English.
An advantage of GSS data, however, is that they capture the two key groups missed by the Census Bureau: those individuals who learned a language other than English outside the home; and those who learned the language at home as children but who now, while still fluent in the non-English language, speak only English in their own homes. The GSS data also reveal where those Americans who speak at least one language in addition to English developed their proficiency in the non-English language (see Indicator V-5d).
An advantage of GSS data, however, is that they capture the two key groups missed by the Census Bureau: those individuals who learned a language other than English outside the home; and those who learned the language at home as children but who now, while still fluent in the non-English language, speak only English in their own homes.
For a measure oflanguage skills at the high school level, see “Advanced Placement Exams Taken in the Humanities.”
The Humanities Indicators and Departmental Survey have been made possible in part
by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the
Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this
website do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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