The United States of America is so famous for the English of its mainstream films, TV and music that it sometimes seems like everybody forgets about the other 349 languages spoken daily in American homes.
That’s right: If you thought the USA is a monolingual, English-speaking country, you couldn’t be farther from the truth. On both individual and societal levels, Americans are no strangers to the benefits of multilingualism.
The United States of America is actually among the most multicultural countries on the planet, which makes it by definition one of the most linguistically diverse as well. We’re talking more than just the Spanish spoken by tens of millions of immigrants and heritage speakers; a recent census study found that Americans speak 350 languages in their homes every day.
Some of these languages have been brought from overseas by immigrants, others are native to the societies which inhabited North America before European exploration and still others are uniquely American-made creoles and hybrids.
As a visitor just getting off the plane or a local living in a homogeneous English-speaking community, it may look and sound like you’re in a purely Anglophone country. But scratch the surface and underneath it you’ll find nearly as many languages as you will different cultures in the USA.
Of course English can get you from coast to coast without a problem, but learning just a few phrases in one or two other languages will open you up to entire other communities that call the USA home.
So if you’re asking yourself, “what language should I learn?” for your trip to the USA or you’re a US citizen who’s thinking about learning one of your neighbors’ languages, here are seven you should take a look at.
7 Diverse Languages Spoken Daily in the USA
1. Spanish: The Unofficial Second Language
Most people know that there are quite a few Spanish speakers in the United States. What most don’t know is that nearly one in six Americans (52 million total) speak Spanish, either as their native language, a heritage language spoken at home with parents or as a foreign language. By total speakers, that makes the USA the second largest Hispanophone country in the world.
Spanish can be easily found in the Southwest, South Florida, New York and most bigger cities across the country. It’s not only an important language for many individuals and families, but in many cases it’s the language of daily life in cities like Miami, where generally even non-Hispanic Americans have at least passive understanding of the language. This geographic spread and significance are probably why Spanish is by far the most popularly learned second language in the US.
In some parts of the country, Spanish will be just as useful as English, and nearly everywhere it’ll move you to the front of the line for delicious food and experiencing firsthand the cultures of the many Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican communities, along with those of the many other Spanish-speaking groups within the United States. And if you want to learn Spanish, FluentU has some great resources to put you on your journey.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
2. Cajun French: The Key to Cajun Country
Many Americans speak French, but it’s not the same French you’ll hear on the streets of Paris or even Quebec.
In the state of Louisiana, there are several very distinct dialects of French or French-based creoles that are still in common use and, despite their lack of a strong linguistic relationship to one another, can be lumped under the grouping of Louisiana French.
The biggest and perhaps most famous of these varieties is Cajun French, spoken by the Cajuns of Southern Louisiana, a distinctly New World mix of Colonial French, Acadian French brought by settlers from French Canada, local Native American languages and English.
This Louisiana original is deeply tied to Cajun culture, and you can see its influence in Cajun music performances and Cajun crawfish boils in towns like Lafayette, Louisiana. Here in the heart of Cajun Country, there are about 25,000 Cajun speakers. Most older locals are bilingual in Cajun and English, and there are lively efforts to keep the language going strong in the area.
Also falling under the category of Louisiana French is Louisiana Creole French, a French-based Creole mixed with English, Native American and African languages that’s spoken by the Louisiana Creoles who also live in Southern Louisiana (but be careful not to confuse this distinct language, culture, food and people with its Cajun cousin). While it’s a distinct creole language rather than a dialect of French, Louisiana Creole can be said to be on a continuum with Cajun French and Parisian French.
With so many different variants of the language spoken in Louisiana, brushing up on your French will serve you well!
3. Cantonese: The Language of Chinatown, USA
While Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in China, Cantonese plays a special role outside of China’s borders. The majority of Chinese expats abroad are from Cantonese-speaking regions, which means that, for just under half a million residents of the great Chinatowns you find in cities like San Francisco and New York, Cantonese is the language that dominates daily life.
Although any American Chinatown is likely to be bursting with Cantonese speakers, the farther west you look the more you’ll find. In large cities all along the West Coast, as well as in many smaller communities between them, you’ll find large groups of people who conduct daily business and life in Cantonese.
Despite the fact that Mandarin-speaking immigrants are starting to make their own impacts on North American Chinatowns, Cantonese isn’t going anywhere—although it does mean that learning Mandarin Chinese is a good investment as well!
4. Gullah: American Hybrid of the Sea Islands
It would be all too easy to drive through the Carolinas and never hear of a language or people called Gullah.
Also known as Sea Island Creole English, Gullah is an English-based creole with strong influences from several Niger-Congo languages spoken in West Africa, and it’s used in the very close-knit Gullah community in the Sea Islands of North and South Carolina.
As was the case with many groups of slaves forcibly brought to the Americas, the original speakers of Gullah developed a hybrid language to speak amongst themselves in privacy from slave owners. The language has historically been formally outlawed in several states, resulting in a mere few hundred native speakers today.
Now this language enjoys formal education programs in parts of South Carolina, supported by a vibrant Gullah cultural revival based in Charleston. Gullah is known for its storytelling tradition, the source of the popularization of the Gullah word “kumbayah,” meaning “come sit by me.”
5. Pennsylvania German: The Language of the American Amish
Most Americans have heard of the Pennsylvania Dutch before, which is why it might be odd to learn that the language they speak is called Pennsylvania German.
The “Dutch” in the name of the American Amish community, their Mennonite cousins and the descendants of both, is an improper translation of Deutsche, which means “German” in German. The language spoken in the community today is still mutually intelligible with Standard German.
Even more counterintuitively: Pennsylvania German (which, as you remember, is spoken by the Pennsylvania Dutch) is spoken in many more places than just Pennsylvania. About 200,000 Amish and Mennonite speakers use the language in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, other Midwestern states and parts of Canada. For these speakers, it’s a deeply cultural language that’s strongly tied to the Amish and Mennonite identity, and most members of these communities speak it fluently alongside English.
If you have an interest in visiting or learning about American Amish and Mennonite communities, learning some German would put you well on your way to sitting down at the dinner table and chatting with the locals in Pennsylvania German!
6. Navajo: A Vibrant Native American Language
Long before European colonizers arrived, indigenous peoples of the Americas had developed their own societies and cultures, all operating with Native American languages. Today, Navajo is one of the few indigenous languages of the USA that enjoys a large speaking population, formal education and is still going strong in general.
Throughout New Mexico, Arizona and other parts of the Southwest, about 170,000 Navajo people continue to use their native languages at home and in daily life. The Navajo Nation offers formal education in Navajo in its territories, one of the reasons language preservation efforts have been largely successful compared to those of other Native American languages.
7. English: The USA’s #1 Export
And of course, it can’t be avoided in a list like this: English. While the United States has Mother England to thank for inheriting its language, the USA is now the global center and biggest exporter of the English language and the global culture surrounding it.
American pop cultural imperialism spread American TV, films, music, and literature—and with it American English and even American slang and idioms—throughout the Western world in the second half of the twentieth century, becoming largely responsible for today’s reality in which you can find young, educated English speakers in most large or cosmopolitan cities in the world.
It’s also the de facto official language of the United States, used at all levels of government, in public education and spoken by the overwhelming majority of Americans as a first or second language. Every day over 300 million Americans—native speakers, bilinguals and immigrants—continue to use the English language and pump its cultural products out into the wider world.
So, while English is obviously number one in the USA, don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s the only one.
This list could be significantly longer! Vietnamese and Tagalog are spoken in small pockets of nearly every major city. Bosnian is the language of choice in some of St. Louis’s south side neighborhoods. Several thousand Kurds have carried their language and culture to Nashville. Cherokee is spoken throughout the Southeast. Over 100,000 Bengali speakers call New York City home.
If you’re living in or visiting the USA and already speak good English, think about learning a bit of one of the many other languages, local or imported, that correspond to the many unique communities and cultures within one of the world’s largest and most diverse countries.
A few phrases in Cajun French or Navajo have the potential to open up entire cultures that many don’t even know exist!
Jakob is a full-time traveler, obsessive language learner and dedicated language teacher. He writes about language, travel and the many places they meet on the road at his blog Globalect.