Although there is no law making English the official language of the United States at the federal level, it is still the de facto national language used in the public and private sectors, as well as in everyday life. American English is spoken as a mother tongue by 80% of the population, and another 15% can speak it “well” or “very well”, according to a 2011 survey by the US Census Bureau. Out of 50 states, 29 have established English as their official language. Hawaii has given both English and Hawaiian official status.
Spanish is the second most commonly used language in the United States, spoken by about 35 million people across the nation. The Spanish-speaking group in the US is composed of both the descendants of those who originally settled the American Southwest and more recent Hispanic immigrants. In areas with a high Spanish-speaking population, it is common for government forms and documents, and even street signs, to be written in both English and Spanish.
After English and Spanish, the top ten languages spoken in the US are Chinese, French, German, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Italian, Korean, Russian, Polish, and Arabic. Whereas the number of people speaking languages of European origin is gradually declining as the descendants of immigrants grow up speaking only English, the number of speakers of Asian languages is sharply increasing with the high immigration rate from this part of the world.
In recent years, the number of Asian immigrants has begun to outnumber that of Hispanic immigrants in many states, although Hispanic immigrants still have the highest numbers overall. These Asian immigrants have brought with them many different languages, including Korean, different varieties of Chinese, Indian tongues such as Punjabi and Hindi, as well as South Asian varieties like Bengali and Tamil. Vietnamese and Tagalog, which were both mentioned above, each have over one million speakers in the United States.
The states with the largest immigrant populations are California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Georgia, Virginia, Washington, Arizona, and Maryland. California’s immigrant population alone accounts for one fourth of the nation’s total. In many big cities, there are areas where immigrants from a certain country or region cluster together, and where the language and culture is kept alive.
As their descendants learn English and assimilate to mainstream American culture, however, the immigrant tongue usually falls into disuse within two to three generations. This is not always the case, however, as shown by the original Spanish settlers of the Southwest, who have retained their language heritage throughout the centuries.
Americans generally tend to speak only English, unless they are recent immigrants. A second language is often taught in school, but students rarely reach any kind of proficiency. That said, the more educated someone is, the more likely they are to speak more than just their mother tongue. Furthermore, second- and sometimes third-generation immigrants can also often speak their parent’s native language in addition to English.
Foreign languages, usually Spanish, French, German or Latin, are taught in many American high schools. Some also offer Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Russian, and American Sign Language. Over the past few years, an increasing number of middle schools, and even elementary schools, have started offering foreign language instruction, usually in Spanish.
However, as a general mindset, many Americans do not see the need to achieve proficiency in a foreign language, as fluency in English alone is perfectly adequate for most everyday situations and career opportunities, unless one wishes to enter a specialized field, such as translation. Thus, American students continue to routinely underperform in foreign language examinations in comparison to their Asian and European counterparts.
There are many opportunities for you to brush up on your English skills during your expat assignment in the US. A good site for learning English online is USA Learns. As it is online, you can already start using it before you move and then continue after you’re settled in the US.
English classes at all levels are often offered at community colleges, libraries, community centers, and similar places, as well as at designated adult education centers and language learning institutes. You can also take courses specifically geared towards business professionals. You can search for classes in your area in America’s Literacy Directory.
We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete.