The United States was founded on immigration and, over time, became a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities. This has been even more pronounced in the past few decades alone. With roots in varying parts of the world, it’s no wonder there are a multitude of languages spoken by American families all across the country. These cultures enrich America and add words to the language and are included in the 50 most popular words that entered the dictionary in the last decade. And just as the cultural mix differs from state to state, so do the most commonly spoken foreign languages.
24/7 Tempo reviewed data from the American Community Survey 2012-2016 5-year estimates to find which foreign language is most often spoken at home in each state.
Spanish may be on the verge of not being called a foreign language anymore, with 39.1 million people across the nation speaking it at home. That’s 13.1% of the country’s population. In all but four states, Spanish is the most commonly spoken foreign language aside from English. For this reason, we eliminated Spanish from the rank. Even though Spanish is more commonly spoken in the United States, income and education gaps between Hispanics and and white residents persist. These are the worst states for Hispanics and Latinos.
The next most commonly spoken foreign language, Chinese, is actually a group of languages and dialects. Roughly 2.1 million people in the U.S. speak some version of Chinese at home — Mandarin and Cantonese are the most popular. Vietnamese follows behind with about 1.5 million people in the U.S. speaking it. Chinese is the most commonly spoken foreign languages, aside from Spanish, in five states, and Vietnamese in nine. Among the states where Chinese is spoken frequently is Massachusetts, where Chinese account for 9.4% of the population, the largest share of foreign-born population in the state. These are the states with the largest immigrant populations.
Many people can identify their ancestry, but far fewer speak the language of their ancestors’ origin. For example, many U.S. residents have German roots, but only a tiny fraction currently speak the language at home. This would make sense as immigrants assimilate and newer generations speak English rather than their parents’ mother tongue. Vietnamese is an exception, however, with a near equivalent share of residents speaking Vietnamese as those identifying Vietnamese ancestry.
To determine the most commonly spoken foreign language in each state, 24/7 Tempo reviewed data from the American Community Survey 2012-2016 5-year estimates on languages spoken most often at home. We excluded Spanish, the most commonly spoken language in nearly every state after English, from our analysis in order to identify more nuanced regional differences. Also from the ACS, we considered data on the ancestry of state residents.