The United States is often referred to as a melting pot of cultures and nationalities. Former President Jimmy Carter famously characterized it in a slightly different way.
“We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic,” the former president said. “Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.”
Whether melting pot or mosaic, the U.S. is undeniably defined by its rich diversity — exemplified in the sheer number of languages spoken in American homes. A U.S. Census Bureau report published in 2015 found at least 350 languages are spoken in homes across the country.
But which languages are spoken by the most U.S. residents? And if we zoom in on specific sections of the map, what are the influences of these languages? Here’s the list of the 6 most spoken languages in the U.S. as determined by the number of people who speak the language at home.
1. English – 231,122,908 native speakers
While it should come as no surprise that English is the most spoken language in the United States, you may be surprised to learn it’s not the country’s official language. The U.S. doesn’t have an official language on the books, but the topic has sparked a fiery debate that goes back centuries. Proponents of making English the official language typically fall on the conservative side of the political scale, while opponents are usually more left-leaning and pro-immigrant. Despite the lack of an official language on a federal level, more than half of the 50 states have passed laws giving English official language status.
Official language or not, English speakers make up an enormous portion of the U.S. population. But with such a wide array of regional dialects, it can sound like there are many different versions of English being spoken in various parts of the country.
Long Island University’s Robert Delaney created this map, which divides the U.S. into 24 distinct dialects. That’s a lot of variation for a single language (and that doesn’t include the forms of English spoken in other parts of the world)! In one corner of the country you may be “pahking the cah,” while in another “ya’ll fixin’ to eat supper.” In a sense, the stark contrasts in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation make each region its own separate world.
2. Spanish – 37,458,470 native speakers
While the number of native Spanish speakers in the U.S. is significantly less than that of English speakers, Spanish is one of the fastest growing languages in the country — it increased by 233% between 1980 and 2013, according to Pew Research Center. In fact, there are more Spanish speakers in the U.S. than in Spain, making it second only to Mexico in Spanish speaking population.
Further evidence of the ubiquity of Spanish in America can be found in both geographic enclaves and Americans’ everyday lexicons. Hispanic communities are located in every state, with particularly large concentrations of Spanish speakers in major cities like New York, Los Angeles and Miami, as well as in large sections of the Southwest (sometimes still referred to as “El Norte” because California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas composed the northernmost region of Mexico until 1848).
In terms of vocabulary, Spanish words and phrases have made their way into American English, perhaps most visibly in numerous American cities and states (San Francisco, Nevada, El Paso, etc.).
3. Chinese (including Cantonese, Mandarin and other varieties) – 2,896,766 native speakers
The drop-off between the second and third most-spoken languages in the U.S. is steep, but Chinese speakers still make up an impressively large sliver of the population. Just like large numbers of native-born Americans, many Chinese immigrants flocked to California in the 19th century hoping to win big in the state’s Gold Rush. Their legacy can still be seen in the large and vibrant Chinese-American communities, or “Chinatowns,” in cities across the country. New York City hosts the largest population of ethnic Chinese outside of Asia, and there are 12 Chinatowns in the New York metro area. Thanks to the Gold Rush, San Francisco is home to the oldest American Chinatown. The vast majority of Chinese speakers in the U.S. reside in California, followed by New York, with Texas a distant third.
4. French and French Creole (including Patois and Cajun) – 2,047,467 native speakers
French is only the fourth most-spoken language in the U.S. if you include Louisiana Creole French, which is a hybrid of French and African languages. This is a particularly interesting subset of American culture, with roots dating back to the 17th century. France controlled the Louisiana territory starting in 1699, and French settlers brought over their language and culture. The region was a rich mix of cultures and classes, comprised of French and Spanish settlers, Native Americans, slaves and freed slaves. After the Louisiana Purchase by the U.S. in 1803, the importation of African slaves skyrocketed, driving the influence of West African languages on the regional French. That’s when Louisiana Creole emerged, and it’s still spoken today in southern Louisiana (especially New Orleans).
Today, more Americans speak standard French than Louisiana Creole (just over 700,000 people speak French Creole in the U.S. as opposed to 1.3 million who speak standard French). And French influence can be seen in numerous American English words and phrases. When you eat an omelette, change the decor of your home, or go to the ballet, you’re seamlessly blending French into your everyday life.
5. Tagalog – 1,613,346 native speakers
Despite being widely spoken across the United States, Tagalog has less name recognition than the other languages on this list. For those who’ve never heard of it, it’s widely spoken in the Philippines, and its standardized version – Filipino – is one of the country’s official languages.
43% of Filipinos in America live in California, but a relatively large concentration reside in Hawaii and the New York City metropolitan area as well. The Philippines was annexed by the U.S. in 1899, so Filipinos were considered American nationals, making immigration a less painful process. Many Filipinos came to the U.S. in the early 20th century to work as agricultural laborers in Hawaii and California. Another large wave of Filipino immigrants came between 1960 and 2013 for a number of reasons, including economic and educational opportunities as well as a culture of migration encouraged by the Philippine government.
6. Vietnamese – 1,399,936 native speakers
The number of Vietnamese speakers in the U.S. is only slightly lower than the number of Tagalog speakers. More than 300,000 Vietnamese immigrants arrived in the U.S. between 2000 and 2014, primarily to reunite with family members — many of whom sought asylum in the U.S. following the Vietnam War.
The majority of Vietnamese settled in California (39%), followed by Texas (13%). In fact, the populations were so concentrated that between 2010 and 2014, one in three Vietnamese immigrants lived in the Los Angeles, San Jose or Houston metro areas.
This list barely scratches the surface of the vast ocean of languages spoken natively across America, but these languages and the people who speak them have influenced the country geographically, culturally and linguistically — and the “beautiful mosaic” of the U.S. continues to grow. For more information on the language breakdown of major U.S. cities, check out this fascinating article from English language school Lingua Link DC.