While the United States historically has been a polyglot nation characterized by great linguistic diversity, it has also been a zone of language extinction in which immigrant tongues fade and are replaced by monolingual English within a few generations. In 1910, 10 million people reported a mother tongue other than English, notably German, Italian, Yiddish, and Polish. The subsequent end of mass immigration from Europe led to a waning of language diversity and the most linguistically homogenous era in American history. But the revival of immigration after 1970 propelled the United States back toward its historical norm. By 2010, 60 million people (a fifth of the population) spoke a non-English language, especially Spanish. In this essay, we assess the effect of new waves of immigration on language diversity in the United States, map its evolution demographically and geographically, and consider what linguistic patterns are likely to persist and prevail in the twenty-first century.
Contrary to what some Americans seem to believe, the United States historically has been a polyglot nation containing a diverse array of languages. At the time of independence, non-English European immigrants made up one-quarter of the population; in Pennsylvania, two-fifths of the population spoke German.1 In addition, an unknown but presumably significant share of the new nation’s inhabitants spoke an American-Indian or African language, suggesting that perhaps one-third or more of all Americans spoke a language other than English. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (which doubled the size of the country), the Treaty of 1818 with Britain (which added the Oregon Country), the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 with Spain (which gave Florida to the United States), and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 (which acquired nearly half of Mexico), tens of thousands of French and Spanish speakers, along with many more slaves and the diverse indigenous peoples of those vast territories, were added to the linguistic mix.2 The addition of Alaska and Hawaii would follow before the end of the nineteenth century.
Although conquest clearly played a role in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, language diversity in the United States has been driven primarily by immigration. Germans and Celts entered in large numbers in the 1840s and 1850s, followed by Scandinavians after the Civil War in the 1870s and 1880s, and then by Slavs, Jews, and Italians from the 1880s to the first decades of the twentieth century. According to the 1910 census, which counted a national population of 92 million, 10 million immigrants reported a mother tongue other than English or Celtic (Irish, Scotch, Welsh), including 2.8 million speakers of German, 1.4 million speakers of Italian, 1.1 million speakers of Yiddish, 944,000 speakers of Polish, 683,000 speakers of Swedish, 529,000 speakers of French, 403,000 speakers of Norwegian, and 258,000 speakers of Spanish.
Linguistic diversity began to wane with the cessation of mass European immigration, which ended abruptly with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. European immigration revived somewhat afterward, but then lapsed into a “long hiatus” during which flows were truncated by restrictive U.S. immigration quotas, a global depression, a second world war, and ultimately the transformation of Europe into a zone of immigration rather than emigration.3 As a result, the percentage of foreign born fell steadily in the United States, dropping from 14.7 percent in 1910 to a nadir of 4.7 percent in 1970,4 at which point language diversity had dwindled to the point where the Census Bureau stopped asking its question on mother tongue.
The great American paradox is that while the United States historically has been characterized by great linguistic diversity propelled by immigration, it has also been a zone of language extinction, in which immigrant tongues die out and are replaced by monolingual English. Although ethnic identities may survive in some form into the third and fourth generations or even beyond, immigrant languages generally suffer early deaths in America.5 This demise occurs not because of an imposition or compulsion from outside, but because of social, cultural, economic, and demographic changes within linguistic communities themselves.6 Based on an extensive study of America’s historical experience, sociologist Calvin Veltman concluded that in the absence of immigration, all non-English languages would eventually die out, usually quite rapidly.7
The revival of mass immigration after 1970 spurred a resurgence of linguistic diversity in the United States and propelled the nation back toward its historical norm. The postwar period in which today’s older white Americans came of age was likely the most linguistically homogenous era in U.S. history. Compared to what came before and after, however, it was an aberration. The collective memory of those who grew up between the 1940s and 1970 thus yields a false impression of linguistic practice in America. From a low of 4.7 percent in 1970, the percentage of foreign born rose steadily to reach 12.9 percent in 2010, much closer to its historic highs. In this essay, we assess the effect of these new waves of mass immigration on language diversity in the United States and consider whether the sociohistorical reality of language extinction and English dominance will prevail in the twenty-first century.
Language diversity refers to the number of languages spoken in the United States and the number of people who speak them. Since 1980, information on languages spoken has been gathered from three questions posed to census and survey respondents: Does this person speak a language other than English at home? What is this language? And how well does this person speak English? Among other purposes, answers to these questions are used to determine bilingual election requirements under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These questions were asked of all persons aged five and older on the censuses of 1980 through 2000, and in 2010 on the American Community Survey (ACS), which replaced the census long form. Table 1 summarizes these data by showing the share of U.S. residents who said they spoke a non-English language at home, as well as the share who spoke only English, by decade between 1980 and 2010. Because Spanish is by far the most widely spoken non-English tongue in the United States, we also report the share that speaks Spanish at home.
As one would expect during an age of mass immigration, the percentage speaking only English at home has steadily fallen in recent decades, declining from 89.1 percent in 1980 to 79.7 percent in 2010, while the share speaking a language other than English correspondingly rose from 11 percent to 20.3 percent. In absolute numbers, the number of persons five years and older speaking a language other than English at home rose from 23.1 million to 59.5 million, with over two-thirds of the increase attributable to the growing number of people speaking Spanish at home, who at 37 million made up 12.6 percent of the total population, but 62.2 percent of all non-English speakers in 2010. Most of the increase in Spanish language use was driven by mass immigration from Latin America. Indeed, most (56.7 percent) of the country’s nearly 60 million speakers of non-English languages are immigrants. Among those who spoke only English at home in 2010, just 2.6 percent were born outside the United States (mostly immigrants from English-speaking countries); among those who spoke Spanish, half (49.4 percent) were foreign born.
Table 2 examines the geography of foreign language use by showing the share of persons aged five and older speaking a non-English language at home in selected states and metropolitan areas. To create the list, we examined all fifty states and metropolitan areas with at least 500,000 inhabitants and ranked the top twenty-five according to the percentage of non-English speakers. The two lists clearly reveal that speaking a foreign language is a phenomenon of the nation’s periphery rather than its heartland, concentrated in cities and states along the coasts, the Great Lakes, and the U.S.-Mexico border. Only four of the states on the list are neither on a coast, a lake, or the border, and all of them were part of the Mexican Cession of 1848 (Nevada, Colorado, Utah in full, and Kansas in part). Kansas stands alone as the single heartland state on the list, with 10.6 percent of its population speaking a non-English language at home. California tops the list with 43.3 percent speaking a non-English language at home, followed by 36.1 percent in New Mexico, 34.5 percent in Texas, and over 29 percent in both New York and New Jersey. The states listed in Table 2 clearly reflect the influence of mass immigration, as the list includes the most important immigrant-receiving states (California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Florida, and Illinois) as well as a number of emerging immigrant destinations (Arizona, North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Utah, and Nevada). In a country where by 2010 over one in five persons (20.3 percent) spoke a foreign language at home, West Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, and Alabama stood in sharp contrast, with 95 to 98 percent of their populations speaking English only. . . .
- 1Marc Shell, “Babel in America; or, the Politics of Language Diversity in the United States,” Critical Inquiry 20 (1993): 103–127.
- 2See David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992); Thomas Fleming, The Louisiana Purchase (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2003); and Laura E. Gómez, Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race (New York: New York University Press, 2007).
- 3Douglas S. Massey, “The New Immigration and the Meaning of Ethnicity in the United States,” Population and Development Review 21 (1995): 631–652.
- 4Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung, “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850–2000,” Population Division Working Paper No. 81 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, 2006).
- 5Rubén G. Rumbaut, “A Language Graveyard? The Evolution of Language Competencies, Preferences and Use Among Young Adult Children of Immigrants,” in The Education of Language Minority Immigrants in the United States, ed. Terrence G. Wiley, Jin Sook Lee, and Russell Rumberger (Bristol, U.K.: Multilingual Matters, 2009), 35–71.
- 6James Crawford, “Seven Hypotheses on Language Loss: Causes and Cures,” in Stabilizing Indigenous Languages, ed. Gina Cantoni (Flagstaff: Northern Arizona University, 2003), 45–60.
- 7Calvin Veltman, Language Shift in the United States (New York: Walter De Gruyter, 1983). The sole exception noted by Veltman was Navajo, but in the two decades since, there has been a rapid erosion of Navajo and other Native American languages.