English is the most common language in the United States of America, which makes it the de facto national language. But is it the official language of the USA? Does the country even have one? What is an official language, and which languages have that status in the United States? We’ll answer these questions and address some facts and fiction surrounding them.
Official languages in the USA
What is an official language?
The term official language does not describe the language spoken by the majority in a country, region, or state. It refers to the government or state language as it is used in judication, legislation and administration. Around 180 countries in the world have an official language and more than one hundred recognise more than one official language. However, the USA is part of neither group.
Read more about the differences between American, British, and Australian English.
US states with official languages
The United States of America doesn’t have an official language on the federal level. They do use English as the primary language for official documents and publications, legislation, orders, regulations and rulings. Yet state laws govern dual-language situations and can require the printing of documents in more than one English, for example, English and Spanish or even French.
A number of states have established English as the only official language on a state level, while other states recognise English alongside native languages. 30 US states have made English the only official language, while Hawaii recognises Hawaiian alongside English and Alaska has many official native languages.
The 30 states with English as the only official language are:
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.
All US territories have official languages. Puerto Rico has declared Spanish the principal language, but both English and Spanish are official languages. In the US Virgin Islands, only English is official, while American Samoa has English and Samoan. Guam has English and Chamorro has official languages and in the Northern Mariana Islands, English, Chamorro and Carolinian are official.
The English Language Unity Act
The English Language Unity Act is a bill seeking to establish English as the US official language on the federal level. Its first version was introduced in 2005 and would require functions, proceedings and publication of federal and state government to be in English.
The bill never became law, though it passed the House of Representatives in 1999. In 2005, a version garnered 164 sponsors in the House, but the bill died then and again in 2007 with 153 cosponsors. In 2017, House Resolution 997 had the support of 73 representatives. Its senate companion bill had seven senators supporting it, again not enough to pass into law.
To this day, there is no federal law in the United States of America declaring English or any other language as official on a national level.
How many people speak English and where is it spoken?
The German myth
According to an urban legend, in 1776, a decision to make German instead of English the official language of the USA hinged on only one vote. This is a myth, but it has various kernels of truth.
Roughly 17% of US-Americans have German forefathers. And there was a vote with a close result, but it didn’t happen in 1776, and it wasn’t on any official language. In 1795, following Congressional debate, a vote ended 42 to 41 against publishing US laws translated into German or languages other than English.
Find out about the biggest differences between America and Germany!
Most common languages in the USA
According to data based on research by the American Community Survey and published by the US Census Bureau, these are the most common languages spoken in the USA: between 290 and 300 million people speak English, while around 230 to 235 million only speak English at home. Around 60 million speak a language other than English at home.
Top 10 most common languages in the USA
The top ten common languages spoken in the USA are:
- English: 290-300 million speakers (230-235 English only)
- Spanish: ~42 million speakers
- Chinese (incl. Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien): ~3.5 million speakers
- Tagalog (incl. Filipino): ~1.75 million speakers
- Vietnamese: ~1.5 million speakers
- Arabic: ~1.25 million speakers
- French: ~1.2 million speakers
- Korean: ~1.1 million speakers
- Russian: ~0.95 million speakers
- German: ~0.92 million speakers
US indigenous languages
The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma recognizes Cherokee as the official language with around 12,000 speakers. Likewise, indigenous languages are official or co-official on many of the US Indian reservations.
Navajo is the most common of the native American languages with around 166,000 speakers who mostly live in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. All other indigenous North American languages combined have 197,000 speakers, with Yupik, Dakota, Apache, Keres, Cherokee, Ojibwa, Choctaw and Zuni being among the most common languages.
Interested in American culture? We’ll tell you how formal or informal people in the USA are!