Language Diversity and English Proficiency in the United States

While a record 64.7 million people ages 5 and older in the United States spoke a language other than English at home in 2015, a growing share of them are also fully proficient in English. Sixty percent of those speaking a foreign language at home were fully proficient in English in 2015, up from 56 percent in 1980—even as immigration levels rose significantly.

The population of immigrants and U.S. natives speaking a language other than English at home—which represents about one in five U.S. residents—has nearly tripled since 1980 when it stood at 23.1 million. This growth is not surprising: The immigrant population in the United States increased by 29.2 million people between 1980 and 2015, the lion’s share coming from countries where English is not an official language. While immigrants learn English in school and in the workplace, their U.S.-born children grow up learning English while also hearing and speaking Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and a host of other languages. Indeed, the U.S. Census Bureau records the use of more than 350 languages.

Just a few languages, however, account for the largest share of those spoken at home, with speakers of Spanish, Chinese, and Tagalog representing 70 percent of the overall population of immigrants and U.S. natives using a language other than English in the household. Most of these people are also fluent in English: The share of people who are bilingual (i.e., those who speak another language at home and reported that they speak English “very well”) is more than half for the speakers of German, French, Tagalog, Arabic, Spanish, French Creole, and Russian

The subset of this population that is Limited English Proficient (LEP) has fallen: 40 percent in 2015, compared to 44 percent in 1980. Limited English proficiency refers to anyone age 5 or older who reported speaking English less than “very well,” as classified by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2015, more than 25.9 million people were LEP, accounting for 9 percent of the overall U.S. population ages 5 and older. While this number is high compared to earlier decades, the LEP population has been largely stable for the past five years. In contrast, the overall number of foreign-language speakers has continued to rise since 2010, increasing linguistic diversity in the United States, albeit with the numbers not rising as fast as before. Although most of the LEP population in 2015 was foreign born, 18 percent of those speaking English less than “very well” were born in the United States.

Immigrants to the United States come from many language backgrounds and while some speak English very well, roughly half of the total immigrant population of 43.3 million in 2015 was LEP.

Population of focus: Limited English Proficient individuals living in the United States

Link to resource: Language Diversity and English Proficiency in the United States

Date: 2016

Organization: Migration Policy Institute