Bilingualism in the US: Celebrating language diversity

Bilingualism in the US: Celebrating language diversity

by Andrea Byaruhanga

Updated November 7, 2022

What comes to mind when you read the word “bilingualism”?

While the word itself refers to speaking two languages, the meaning of bilingualism is much deeper than that. 

For some, bilingualism describes their upbringing and everyday life: Maybe they speak one language in public, and another at home with their family. For others, bilingualism is a goal: They might aspire to master a second language for social, personal or professional reasons. 

One thing is certain, regardless of the context: Bilingualism is powerful. Wherever several languages are spoken, there exists a vibrant diversity that comes from the exchange of multiple cultures. 

Below, we dig into bilingualism in the US, looking at how many bilinguals there are, commonly spoken languages and those that are most popular among learners. We’ll also discuss some amazing benefits of bilingualism. 

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How common is bilingualism in the US?

The United States isn’t a nation that’s known for its bilingualism; it’s just not that common. English, the world’s most widely spoken language, reigns supreme. 

About 78% of Americans say they only speak English at home—that’s 241 million people. In addition, 30 states have English as their only official language

When it comes to non-English languages spoken at home, Spanish takes the top spot, with 13% of the population (around 41 million people) communicating en español

How many people in the US are bilingual?

It’s clear that English and Spanish dominate in the US. But among the bilingual population in the US who don’t speak Spanish or English at home, a variety of languages are represented.

Take a look at the breakdown of the most common languages in the US after English and Spanish.

  1. Mandarin and Cantonese: These two are the most commonly spoken languages in the US after English and Spanish, with 3.4 million speakers—which is just over 1% of the population. These two languages are the most common in 17 states, including California, Alabama, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
  2. Filipino: With 1.7 million speakers (about 0.5% of the total population), Filipino is the second most commonly spoken language. The highest population of Filipino speakers in the US is in the state of Nevada.
  3. Vietnamese: 1.5 million people, or 0.4%, speak Vietnamese in the United States. You’ll find the highest proportion of Vietnamese speakers in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi and Georgia.
  4. Arabic: Spoken by 1.2 million people, which is about 0.3%, Arabic is most common in Tennessee and Michigan.
  5. French: There are 1.1 million French speakers (0.3%) in the US, including “Louisiana French,” which is a mix of French, Spanish, African and Native American languages. French is most prevalent in the states of Louisiana, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

While the info above gives us a snapshot of what people speak at home, it doesn’t reflect which languages Americans are learning

The Modern Language Association published a 2016 study of non-English enrollments into higher education institutions. It’s not an all-encompassing measure of who’s learning what, but it gives us a pretty good idea. 

Based on enrollment numbers, Spanish is the most popular language to learn in the US, followed closely by French. The findings show that American Sign Language, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Latin and Russian were the other most popular choices. 

Interestingly, every language saw a drop in enrollment from the previous 2013 study, except Japanese, which grew by 3%. This supports other findings that Japanese is growing in popularity all over North America. 

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3 benefits of bilingualism

For many, speaking more than one language is circumstantial—in other words, not a choice. They might be bilingual due to immigration from another country, being first-generation American or having extended family members who speak another language.

A lot of other people, however, know a second language because they’ve chosen to learn one. That’s not surprising, as bilingualism comes with a ton of benefits. 

Here are just three of the fantastic reasons to be bilingual.

1. Brain power

If you want to protect your cognition as you age, consider learning a second language. One study suggests that bilingualism can boost your brain function later in life, especially among those who learn a second language in adulthood. The study showed that bilingual subjects performed best in the categories of general intelligence and reading.

On top of that, you may also improve your decision-making skills if you know a second language. According to one study, subjects made more utilitarian, less emotionally based decisions when using their second language to consider a moral dilemma. 

2. Social connections

Knowing more than one language means you can connect with more people. 

Whether it’s in a work environment, on vacation or on a date, bilingualism expands your world when it comes to making connections and building relationships. 

What’s more, communicating with people in different languages means that you’re engaging in cultural exchange—learning, accepting and appreciating cultural differences and diversity. 

Career choices

Knowing more than one language offers benefits when it comes to your career. First of all, it makes you more employable

Not only do you have the language skills to apply for more jobs, but you’re also seen by companies as a more valuable asset. There’s even some evidence that knowing at least one other language means you have the potential to earn more money.

Bilingualism in the US: Celebrate diversity

Whether you’ve been bilingual all your life or are just beginning to learn a new language, bilingualism has one overarching theme: It’s a celebration of diversity. 

Every language has a rich culture behind it. By knowing more than one language, you can participate in intercultural communication, looking past your own narrow viewpoint and seeing the world from the perspectives of others. 

And the world could use a little more understanding, don’t you think? ¡Viva la diversidad!

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Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and son, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.

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