Although English is the most spoken language in the United States, the growth rate and number of bilingual people have steadily risen. In 1980, just over 10 percent of the population was bilingual, according to the US Census Report. That same report now shows that just over 20 percent of the population speaks more than one language.
Targeting your Localization Efforts in the US
For business owners and corporate marketing managers, knowing which languages are spoken by your clients will help prepare suitable marketing collateral, advertisements, publications and such. It will also provide guidelines for possible website translation and software localization efforts in your business. This post provides details on which foreign languages are most common in each state.
It is clear that Spanish is by far the most commonly spoken foreign language used in the USA. It is no wonder that so many US companies target this huge population in their marketing and sales efforts. Indeed, the demand for Spanish translation services in the USA is growing rapidly.
Learning a new language has many benefits. Not only does it allow the opportunity to speak with a wider range of people, but it can also help you score a new job. People who speak a new language are thought by scientists to have greater critical thinking skills, thanks to the fact they must think in 2 (or more) different languages. Learning a new language can also make travel easier.
If you wish to learn a new language that will benefit your career, however, it helps to know which are the most commonly spoken foreign languages in the US. These are the languages that potential employers will be looking for, because they will be of the most use.
The Top 10
So, which foreign languages are the most common?
10. Haitian Creole
Haitian Creole comes in at number 10, with 860,000 native or fluent speakers in the United States. This is a type of language that is primarily spoken in areas that were once occupied by a large number of French plantations. It is a dialect similar to French, but is distinctly different.
If you live in Louisiana, chances are high you’ve often come into contact with people who speak Creole. While the dialect spoken in Louisiana is slightly different than that spoken in other countries, knowing either would allow you to converse with both. Other countries that speak Haitian Creole include Haiti, French Guyana, Martinique, and Guadalupe.
German is the 9th most commonly spoken language in the US, with approximately 910,000 speakers. It is also the second most commonly spoken language in North Dakota, and ranks as the third highest language spoken at home in sixteen other states, after Spanish and English. These states include: Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Wisconsin, Iowa, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky.
Although German is obviously the official language of Germany, it is also the official language of several other countries in central Europe. This includes Lichtenstein, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol, and a portion of Belgium.
Russian comes in 8th place, and like German, there are 910,000 speakers in the United States. It is the third most commonly spoken language in Oregon. The number of Russian speakers in the US has quadrupled in the last 30 years, according to a 2013 Census Report. In 1980, there were only roughly 173,000 Russian speakers in the US.
Outside the country, Russian is the official language of Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. In addition to this, it is consider an “unofficial second language” in several other countries – much like the way Spanish is so widely spoken in the US. These countries were once part of the Soviet Union, and include the Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Most of today’s Korean American population comes from South Korea, versus North Korea. It is only one of several Asian languages to make the list of top ten foreign languages spoken in the US, and an estimated 2 percent of the population is able to communicate at some level in Korean.
Korean is the 3rd most commonly spoken language in both Georgia and Virginia, making it the perfect foreign language to learn if you live in one of these states. Korean is also the official language of both North Korea and South Korea, with small but notable populations of speakers in both China and Japan.
French is the 6th most common foreign language in the US, with 1,200,000 speakers. It’s prevalence boils down to a combination of history and geography. Historically, the French had claims over several parts of what is now the United States. As with all territories, parts of the culture and language were left over after the French (in this case) left. Geographically, the US shares a very long border with it’s northern neighbor, Canada, where French is very commonly spoken in several provinces.
In America, French is the 2nd most commonly spoken language after English in the states of Maine and Vermont. It is the third most commonly spoken language in Louisiana, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
Globally, French is the official language for an incredible 29 countries. For those looking to learn a second language to enhance their career, it helps to know that French is also one of the fastest-growing languages in the world right now.
Like French, Arabic has 1,200,000 speakers living within the United States. It is the fastest-growing foreign language taught by colleges and universities in the states, and sits as the 10th most popular to study. Within the US, the highest concentrations of Arabic speakers are in California, Michigan, and New York.
Outside of the United States, Arabic and similar dialects are widely spoken in the middle east. There are 25 countries that claim Arabic as their official or co-official language. Notable among these are Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The Vietnamese language is the 4th most commonly spoken foreign language in the US, with approximately 1,500,000 speakers. It is the third most commonly spoken language in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Washington, making Vietnamese a great choice for a secondary language if you live in these states.
Outside America, Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam, and a south Chinese province called Guangxi. There is also a considerable portion of native speakers located in Laos, Cambodia, France, and Australia.
Tagalog is an Austronesian language that takes much of it’s dialect from English and Spanish. It is the official language of the Philippines, and the third most commonly spoken foreign language in America with about 1,700,000 speakers. For the Census Reports, Tagalog includes a slightly different dialect called Filipino.
Filipino Americans alone consist of a population of slightly more than four million, with the highest ethnic concentrations being focused in California, Hawaii, and Illinois.
Chinese is the 2nd most commonly spoken language in the US, with around 3,400,000 speakers. For the Census Reports, this includes a combination of both Mandarin and Cantonese dialects. Chinese is the third most commonly spoken foreign language in the state of New York, with high concentrations of native speakers also living in California, Texas, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
Globally, Chinese is the official language of China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Approximately 16 percent of the world’s population speaks Chinese as a first language, which translates to around 1.2 billion people.
Spanish is by far the most commonly spoken foreign language in the United States, with around 40,500,000 speakers. This has much to do with the close proximity of countries in Central America, and ongoing immigration from these countries, as well as places like Puerto Rico and Cuba. Spanish is also the most commonly studied foreign language in the states, with around 6 million students.
Spanish is quickly growing, with conservative estimates placing Spanish speakers in the US at around 138 million by the year 2050. It is the 2nd most commonly spoken language in 43 of 50 states. Globally, Spanish is the official or co-official language of 21 different countries.
With such a diverse population, the United States is home to a substantial number of many foreign languages. While these top 10 are undoubtedly the best choices if you wish to learn a foreign language for career advancement, there are other options that may be viable if you live in certain areas with a high concentration of native speaking populations. These are the runner-up languages for those most commonly spoken in the United States:
- Hindi (810,000)
- Portuguese (770,000)
- Italian (580,000)
- Polish (540,000)
- Urdu (470,000)
- Japanese (460,000)
- Persian (440,000)
- Gujarati (410,000)
- Telegu (370,000)
- Bengali (320,000)
About the Author
Chelsea Falin is a dedicated professional with 10+ years experience working as a freelance writer, and 5+ years as a freelance marketer. Studied at ASU for Bachelors in English with minor in Media Analysis, and obtained certification in inbound and content marketing via HubSpot Academy. Experience in multiple forms of digital content.