Linguistic diversity is increasing in the US. What does that mean for language access?

In the United States, the number of people who speak a language other than English at home is rising faster than those who mainly speak English.

A recent report from the US Census Bureau broke down the country’s ever-evolving linguistic demographics. Based on data from a 2019 survey, the Census Bureau found that the number of people who use a language other than English as their primary language nearly tripled in the last four decades, outpacing the English-speaking population’s growth pretty significantly. 

According to the report, individuals who primarily speak a language other than English at home make up about 22% of US residents now (that is, 67.8 million people), compared to just 10% (23.1 million) in 1980. While the number of people who primarily use English has also grown since 1980, that growth has been less marked. While the number of foreign language speakers nearly tripled in four decades, the number of English speakers grew by just around 25%.

The Census Bureau released a 37-page document on the country’s language demographics in September, and earlier this month published a shorter, more accessible version breaking down some of the trends for a wider audience. Collecting linguistic data like this is a useful way for organizations of both the private and public sectors to gauge the need for language access across the nation.

“Government agencies and other organizations can use these language data to determine the need for translators and other language assistance services,” reads the original report from earlier this year. “These data are used in a wide variety of legislative, policy, and research applications, as well as for legal, financial, and marketing decisions.”

The rising number of foreign language speakers coincides with another interesting trend — increased efforts to improve language access across the country. The year 2000 — when foreign language speakers made up about 17% of the population — marks a milestone in the country’s language policy, as then-president Bill Clinton signed an executive order to improve language access for programs conducted or assisted by the federal government. 

The nation still has a long way to go in fully embracing its linguistic diversity, but one thing seems certain — as the population of foreign language speakers grows, demand for improved language access is likely to increase.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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