The Most Spoken Languages in the United States

January 16, 2024

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Students standing in front of the America flag reading book, phones and tablets

You’d be forgiven for thinking English is the official language of the United States. After all, it is the most spoken language in the country. However, the US has no official language.

The United States is a nation full of immigrants, which is reflected by its diverse culture and heritage. Over 350 languages are spoken by the 332 million people in the country, with many able to speak two or more languages.

We’ve looked at census data collected from 2021 by the United States Census Bureau to see which languages are most spoken in the US. The data was based on anyone in the country aged five years and over.

Let’s jump right into it and look at the ten most spoken languages in the US. Bonne lecture, feliz lectura, and happy reading!

1. English – 245 million speakers

English language teacher at the front of the class next to a whiteboard
English language teacher at work

With 245 million native speakers out of the country’s 332 million total population, it’s safe to say English is the most spoken language in the United States.

There are around 30 different dialects across the country. Much of the accents and dialects are influenced by the immigrant influence in each state. For example, Cajun English is commonly spoken in Louisiana, which used to be a territory of France and Spain before it was passed to Great Britain.

The English language is Germanic and was formed around the 5th century when Germanic tribes invaded Britain. The language further developed when the Normans (from Northern France) invaded and conquered England. Over time, English continued to change as the British had more contact with people from around the world.

The language was brought to the United States with the first English colonies in the 17th century. English was further cemented in the country following further English migration in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Between 1980 and 2019, the number of people solely speaking English at home decreased by 28.8%. Between 2000 and 2019, the decrease was by 14.7%. This decrease is likely due to increased immigration from countries that don’t speak English as a first language. However, that’s not to say most immigrants can’t speak English at all. In the 2019 census, only 8% of respondents said they spoke English ‘less than well’.

2. Spanish – 41.3 million speakers

EspaΓ±ol word composed with multi colored stone letters
EspaΓ±ol word composed with multi colored stone letters

The second-most spoken language in the United States is Spanish, with 41.3 million native speakers. Spanish has been spoken in the United States since the 15th century following the arrival of Spanish colonizers.

The Spanish language developed from spoken Latin (sometimes called ‘vulgar Latin’). During the two-century Roman occupation of the Iberian peninsula (then called ‘Hispania’), Latin began to mix with local languages. However, it was during the 4th century, when the Roman Empire fell, that Spanish truly developed. The language was further influenced by the likes of the Visigoths (a Germanic group) and Muslim conquerors between the 4th and 8th centuries.

Spanish has many different dialects. Latin American Spanish is spoken in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and other South American countries. Castilian Spanish, on the other hand, is the dialect spoken in northern and central Spain. The difference between the Spanish dialects is similar to the differences between American English, Australian English, and British English. Although there are notable variants in the accents and some words, Spanish speakers can still understand one another.

Of the 41.3 million Spanish speakers in the US, 24.9 million speak English ‘very well’, while 16.2 million speak English ‘less than well’. There are large populations of Spanish speakers in major cities throughout states such as Texas, Florida, and California. In 2021, California had the highest Hispanic population of any US state, with over 15.75 million claiming Hispanic heritage.

3. Chinese (incl. Mandarin, Cantonese) – 3.4 million speakers

Printed cards for learning Mandarin
Printed cards for learning Mandarin

Third on our list is the Chinese language, which is an umbrella term for the varying dialects and languages that originate from China. It includes the likes of Cantonese and Mandarin, the most spoken varieties of the Chinese language around the world.

3.4 million people in the US speak a Chinese language. Of this, 1.6 million people say they also speak English ‘very well’, while 1.7 million people say they speak English ‘less than very well’. In 2021, it was estimated that 5.2 million people of Chinese descent lived in the US. This was the largest population of any Asian group in the country.

Chinese is the oldest written language in the world. Turtle shells with Chinese inscriptions from the Shang Dynasty (1766-1123 BC) prove that the language has been used for at least 3,000 years.

While there is only one standard method for writing Chinese, there are several hundred versions of spoken Chinese languages. This is because China was historically a divided country, and many regions were isolated from each other. Different dialects evolved over time, and many are as distinct from one another as Spanish is from French or English is from Italian.

4. Tagalog – 1.72 million speakers

flag of the Philippines (blowing in the wind on a flag pole

While most people would answer ‘Filipino’ if asked what language the majority of people from the Philippines speak, the correct answer would be Tagalog! This language, along with Cebuano, is the most-spoken language in the Philippines and the fourth most spoken in the US.

Over 1.72 million people in the US speak Tagalog. The language was brought to the US by Filipino immigrants in the 18th century.

The Filipino language is based on Tagalog and is taught in schools across the Philipines (along with English). Although most people may consider Filipino and Tagalog to be the same, they are actually two different languages.

Tagalog originated thousands of years ago, although no one knows for certain exactly when or how. The name ‘Tagalog’ is derived from the word ‘taga-ilog’, which means ‘settlers of the river’ or ‘river folk’.

Much of the Tagalog language was influenced by Malay and Chinese. During the Spanish colonization of the Philippines in the 16th century, Tagalog was deemed a ‘commoner’s language’. People were encouraged to speak Spanish in social and trade settings. During this period, the Tagalog language continued to evolve and took many loan words from Spanish.

5. Vietnamese – 1.52 million speakers

Vietnamese edition of the Epoch Times
Vietnamese edition of the Epoch Times

Over one and a half million people speak Vietnamese in the US. Of this, 639,000 people speak English ‘very well’, and 883,000 people speak English ‘less than very well’. Vietnamese has several different dialects. Some of the most prominent dialects include the Hanoi dialect (from northern Vietnam), the Hue dialect (from central Vietnam), and the Saigon dialect (from southern Vietnam).

Vietnamese is a tonal language, so the meaning of words changes based on the speaker’s tone of voice. During China’s 1,000-year colonial rule of Vietnam from around 111 BC to 938 AD, the Vietnamese language was influenced by traditional Chinese. The Vietnamese language was further influenced by the French language during the French colonial administration between 1884 and 1945.

The Vietnamese population was small in the US until after the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Many of the immigrants supported South Vietnam and fled to the US to avoid political persecution. In 1980, only 197,588 people spoke Vietnamese in the US. By 2019, this had increased to 1,570,526.

6. Arabic -1.39 million speakers

Man writing a traditional Arabic character
Man writing a traditional Arabic character

The sixth most spoken language in the US is Arabic, with 1.39 million speakers. It’s a language that has significantly increased in popularity in recent decades; in 1980, just 217,000 people spoke Arabic in the US.

Arabic originated in the Arabian Peninsula around the 8th century BC. It’s a member of the Semitic family of languages, which includes Aramaic and Hebrew. The language experienced significant development between the 3rd and 6th centuries.

The Silk Road (a Eurasian trade network) played a major role in developing and spreading the Arabic language between the second century and the 15th century. Scholars and Arab merchants traveled along the trade routes and helped spread the language to different regions.

Arabic was bought to the US via migrants from various countries. It’s the official language of countries such as Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, as well as Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

7. French – 1.18 million speakers

French restaurant blackboard written in French
Cafe blackboard menu written in French

Coming in at number seven is French, which 1.18 million people speak in the US. This figure includes people who speak Cajun (which is mainly spoken in southern Louisiana). Of these French speakers, over 924,000 said they could also speak English ‘very well’, while just under 251,000 said they speak English ‘less than very well’.

The French language originated after the Romans introduced Latin to the Celtic-speaking people of Gaul (western Europe). It further evolved following the arrival of the Franks, a Germanic-speaking group that conquered the region in the 5th century.

France began colonizing the US in the 16th century, and the language slowly began to spread throughout the country. Over time, three major French dialects developed in the US: Louisiana French, Missouri French, and New England French. The latter is derived from Canadian French.

Of the ten languages featured in this list, French is the only language that has decreased in popularity between 1980 and 2021. In 1980, 1.5 million said they spoke the language, whilst only 1.18 million said they did in 2021.

8. Korean – 1.07 million speakers

Learning Korean language by hand writing the alphabet
Hand writing the Korean alphabet

Just over 1 million people speak Korean in the US. This is a major increase from a few decades ago. In 1980, only 266,280 people spoke the language in the US. Around 527,000 Korean speakers say they can also speak English ‘very well’, while around 547,000 people said they spoke English ‘less than very well’.

Korean is one of the world’s oldest spoken languages. It’s difficult to trace its true origin, but many words originate from Chinese, and some honorifics are Japanese. The earliest evidence of the Korean language is from 57 BC.

There are two officially recognized Korean dialects: the Seoul dialect in South Korea and the Phyong’yang dialect in North Korea. However, there are many more regional dialects across both countries.

Since 1903, there have been three major waves of Korean immigrants in the US. The 1903 wave saw Korean immigrants move to Hawaii to work on pineapple and sugar plantations. The second wave occurred between 1950 and 1964, following the Korean War. The majority were Korean wives of American servicemen, orphans adopted by American families, and students and businessmen. The third wave came after 1965 as a result of high unemployment rates, political unrest, and military dictatorship in Korea.

9. Russian – 1.04 million speakers

Russian alphabet
Russian alphabet

Of the 332 million people in the US, just 1.04 million people speak Russian. Of this figure, just over 618,000 say they speak English ‘very well’, and over 426,000 say they speak English ‘less than very well’.

Russian is the most spoken Slavic language in the world. Aside from Russia, it is largely spoken in Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

In around 880 AD, modern Ukraine, Belarus, and West Russia were unified as a state called Kyivan Rus’. A language called Old East Slavic was common in the region. Following the dispersal of the Kyivan Rus’ in around 1,100 AD, Russian began to differentiate itself as a separate language.

Modern Russian was revolutionized in the 19th century by the poet Alexander Pushkin. He rejected the old grammar and vocabulary and began to use language that the ordinary Russians did. This helped make his written work accessible to the average person. Pushkin is now seen in the same light by Russians as Shakespeare is by English speakers.

A wave of people from the Russian Empire migrated to the US in the late 19th century. However, this group largely consisted of Ukrainians, Belarussians, and Lithuanians. Ethnic Russians were barred from leaving Russia. More Russian-speaking immigrants come to the US following the fall of the Russian Empire in the early 20th century.

10. Portuguese – 937,000 speakers

Portuguese words written on a foggy windscreen
Portuguese writing which translates to “goodbye, summer” in English

And finally, the tenth most spoken language in the US is Portuguese, with 937,000 speakers. Just a few decades before in 1980, under 352,000 people spoke the language. In 2021, over 595,000 said they could also speak English ‘very well’, while 342,000 said they could speak English ‘less than very well’.

Portuguese originated from Latin in the Western Iberian Peninsula during the Roman Empire. In a similar manner to Spanish, the language further developed the Iberian Peninsula was taken over by Germanic groups. The so-called ‘vulgar Latin’ replaced the local languages. Over time, the language continued developing under various rulers and through increased trade with other nations.

Portuguese explorers were some of the first to arrive in the Americas in the 15th century. Large numbers of Portuguese men arrived in the country in the 19th century for the New England whaling industry. Many of these men settled around the New England area and near other whaling stations around Hawaii and the California coast.

Overview: Most Spoken Languages in the US

The table below shows the number of people who say they speak each language at home. The data shows the results from the 1980 and 2021 censuses and the percentage change between the two years.

LanguageNo. of speakers in 1980No. of speakers in 2021Percentage change
English210 million245 million(+) 17%
Spanish23 million41.3 million(+) 80%
Chinese (incl. Mandarin, Cantonese)630,0003.4 million(+) 440%
Tagalog474,0001.72 million(+) 263%
Vietnamese197,0001.52 million(+) 672%
Arabic217,0001.39 million(+) 541%
French1.5 million1.18 million(-) 21%
Korean266,0001.07 million(+) 302%
Russian173,0001.04 million(+) 501%
Portuguese351,000937,000(+) 167%

English is the most language, followed by Spain and Chinese. Of the 332 million people in the US, 74% of the population (245 million) said they spoke English. Arabic has seen the greatest increase of any language in the US, with a 541% between 1980 and 2021. French is the only language that has decreased in popularity since 1980.

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