• Loie Favre

What are the most spoken languages in the US? American language statistics and findings

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

The intermingling of languages, cultures and different backgrounds is fascinating to study. One query leads to another and soon you are uncovering a huge network of information that provide a new world perspective. Today, we're looking at the most languages spoken in the US, in American cities and quadrants, and some other interesting details, like which American presidents could speak a second language (can you guess how many languages Donald Trump speaks?).

So many languages: is it worth translating them all?

First off, there are 6,500 living languages spoken in the whole world today. That's an amazing number to consider. Many of these, however, are spoken by very few people in small remote areas. International companies definitely do not translate their products into this number of languages. Depending on the size and reach of the organization, they usually concentrate on 10 to 30 to spoken languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, German, Russian and Portuguese.

Chart that shows countries with the most spoken languages, with Papua New Guinea, Indonsia and Nigeria in the top 3.
The United States is a diverse multilingual nation. Copyright Statista

The biggest AHA moment is to realize that there are so many languages spoken in just one country. Granted, this does make sense in a country like the US that is a mosaic of cultures, but 840 in Papua New Guinea! This country has a population of 8.8 million people, and the majority of these languages are spoken in small speech communities. It's mindboggling.

What are the most spoken foreign languages in the US?

English is obviously the most spoken languages in the United States, with 254 million native speakers, followed by:

  • Spanish (43,200,000 native speakers)

  • all varieties of Chinese (2,900,000 native speakers)

  • Tagalog (1,610,000 native speakers)

  • Vietnamese (1,400,000 native speakers)

  • French, French Creole and Cajun (1,281,300 native speakers)

However, language diversity is not found in all areas of the US to the same extent. The major language hubs are represented by these key American cities:

  • New York

  • San Francisco

  • San Jose

  • Los Angeles

  • San Diego

  • Denver

  • Chicago

  • Philadelphia

  • Washington DC

  • Seattle

The first two are not at all surprising, and the others are of course some of the largest and most multicultural cities in the US.

A nighttime map that shows the lights in US cities.
American cities are cultural and linguistic meccas.

Top languages spoken per US quadrant

The share of non-English language also differs per quadrant, though Spanish is spoken the most in each of them. The second and third most spoken languages per region are:

  • Northeastern: Chinese and Russian

  • Midwest: Polish and Chinese

  • Southern: Vietnamese and Chinese

  • Southeastern: French and Vietnamese

The Western States has the largest number of non-English language speakers with 8.4 million people.

US President John Quincy Adams was a polyglot

While going through various stats about language usage in the US, I came across this interesting chart that shows the number of non-English languages spoken by all U.S. presidents from 1789 to 2017, up to President Barack Obama. The real polyglot of the bunch though was John Quincy Adams, who served as President from 1825 to 1829.

After Adams, all presidents knew for the most part just Latin and/or Greek as their second and third languages - though as dead languages, they weren't for active communication with different demographics by any means. It seems like learning a second language other than the classical ones was not important between 1841 and 1885.

Theodore Roosevelt broke this monolingual trend by knowing both classical languages, in addition to German, Spanish, Dutch and Indonesian, which is quite commendable. After that, the number of foreign languages spoken by each president dwindled again, though each President from Jimmy Carter up to Barack Obama could speak one second language. Donald Trump only knows English and newly-elected President Joe Biden seems to know only one as well, though there is not a lot of documentation around this.

A chart that shows how many languages US presidents could speak throughout time.
It seemed that US Presidents from John Tyler to Chester Arthur didn't see the value of learning a second language aside from classical ones.

America's identity: a truly polyglot and multicultural society

The United States is far from being an English-only speaking country. It is in the top 10 countries with the most spoken languages! This just goes to show just how diverse the country is, which is one of the reasons why it's so rich and interesting, despite what some Americans might say. Everyone could learn a thing or two from US President John Quincy Adams and take advantage of the language mecca that is America.