The State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Portrait


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Commission on Language Learning

Languages are fundamental to nearly every aspect of our lives. They are not only our primary means of communication; they are the basis for our judgments, informing how we understand others as well as ourselves.

By several measures, the United States has neglected languages in its educational curricula, its international strategies, and its domestic policies. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 60 million U.S. residents speak a language other than English at home—a number that has been growing decade by decade since the 1970s. But of the more than 230 million English speakers in the United States, very few develop proficiency in a language other than English in our schools, and the numbers of school language programs and qualified language teachers appear to be decreasing. Meanwhile, American businesses have reported a need for employees who understand the nuances of communicating with the international community, and the federal government continues to struggle to find representatives with enough language expertise to serve in diplomatic, military, and cultural missions around the world.

While English continues to be the lingua franca for world trade and diplomacy, there is an emerging consensus among leaders in business and politics, teachers, scientists, and community members that proficiency in English is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world.
This report summarizes the nation’s current language capacity, focusing on the U.S. education system. The disparity between our goals—most notably the preparation of citizens who can thrive in the twenty-first century—and the nation’s current capacity in languages will be the subject of a forthcoming report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on Language Learning.