Languages of the United States of America

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The languages of the United States of America reflect much of the world's linguistic diversity. Although English is the de facto national language, with 82% of the population monolingual English speakers,[1] linguists estimate that there are as many as 162 indigenous and immigrant languages, from the near-extinct Achumawi tongue (spoken by a handful of non-fluent Native Americans in north-eastern California) to Spanish (native language of 30 million residents)[2] and Zuni, a language unrelated to any other, confined to about 9,000 people in a New Mexican reservation.[3] Languages from Asia and the Middle East are also represented, reflecting America's status as a nation built upon immigration[4] - the movement and shifting fortunes of different peoples being one reason for the extinction of many more American languages in the last four hundred years.[5] The U.S. Census Bureau recognises about 380 languages or language families in use.[6]

Official languages at state level

There is no official language nationwide, though individual states and territories have enacted legislation to officialize various languages. Two of the U.S.'s fifty states are officially bilingual: New Mexico (with Spanish) and Hawaii (with Hawaiian). Louisiana law also grants French some recognition. In the U.S. Commonwealth, from 1991 Puerto Rico briefly had Spanish as the sole official language; a 1993 law restored English to the same status.[7] 29 states have made English their official language; some consider this to be a response to the identification of languages other than English as symptomatic of a threat to 'American values.'[8] Several groups campaign for English to be the nation's only official language. However, not only does English remain the language of the vast majority of American people, but the economic and military power of the USA has spread the influence of American English far beyond U.S. borders.


  1. Modern Language Association: 'Most spoken languages in the entire US.' Accessed 29th September 2007.
  2. Shin & Bruno.
  3. Ethnologue: 'Languages of USA'. Accessed 29th September 2007.
  4. Wardhaugh (2006: 367).
  5. For more information on language endangerment, see the Ethnologue website: 'Global Language Viability.' Accessed 29th September 2007.
  6. Shin & Bruno.
  7. Wardhaugh (2006: 367-368).
  8. Rickford (2004); Wardhaugh (2006: 368); Schmid (2001); Huntington (2004).

See also