7 Diverse Languages Spoken Daily in the USA
With approximately 349 languages spoken daily across the United States of America, the country is one of the most linguistically diverse in the world.
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.
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 Languages Spoken in the USA
- 1. Spanish: The Unofficial Second Language
- 2. Cajun French: The Key to Cajun Country
- 3. Cantonese: The Language of Chinatown, USA
- 4. Gullah: American Hybrid of the Sea Islands
- 5. Pennsylvania German: The Language of the American Amish
- 6. Navajo: A Vibrant Native American Language
- 7. English: The USA’s #1 Export
- 3 Reasons To Learn Non-English Languages
7 Languages Spoken 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.
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.
3 Reasons To Learn Non-English Languages
Sure, English will be the most common language you’ll use and encounter in the States. So why bother learning others?
It’s nearly impossible to live in America without being influenced by a different culture. A single neighborhood in any US city will likely house families from all kinds of heritages, all living on the same block.
This aspect can be a real gift, one that broadens your perspective and gives you a taste of different lifestyles. By learning even a little of a new language to better access a unique culture, you open yourself to special learning opportunities.
And with today’s technology and increasing need for global connection, it’s not so hard to get educated on how our neighbors live. There are nifty modern resources to help you with this, like FluentU, a program that utilizes authentic media and learner tools to teach language in context and to provide engaging glimpses into cultural matters.
Creating meaningful bonds
Activist Nelson Mandela once said “If you talk to [a man] in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
Learning a language isn’t just a matter of learning new words and how to pronounce them. It’s a way to reach a genuine point of understanding with a fellow human and showing you care. It lowers barriers and can boost expressivity, for both yourself and to the person you’re speaking with.
Making the effort to learn a language can be very much appreciated, especially if your conversation partner is more comfortable in their native tongue. The brownie points you can earn, alongside a delighted smile from whoever you talk to, can make your language studies all worth it.
Being multilingual is, quite simply, very helpful.
You may be walking the streets and need some help getting somewhere. You might be trying to read items off a non-English menu or pamphlet. Or maybe you’re in an area looking for an item but the folks around you aren’t completely fluent in English.
Being armed with knowledge of another language can pull you out of both expected and unexpected situations. There are many pockets in American communities in which speaking a certain language can more quickly lead you to the solutions you seek.
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.