Those who speak Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese at home are less proficient in English than Spanish-speakers according to striking findings the Census Bureau released Tuesday that suggest some Asians may have a tougher time mastering English than Hispanics.
Overall, Americans speak more than 350 different tongues at home, including some 150 Native American languages, some of which have so few speakers that the bureau declined to release the totals for fear that it would identify actual individuals.
And in the country’s largest cities, English is actually a minority language: A staggering 54 percent of residents in the Los Angeles metropolitan region speak a language other than English at home, as do 51 percent of Miami-area residents, 40 percent of San Francisco, 38 percent of New York, 37 percent of Houston and 36 percent of the Washington, D.C., region.
The data, gleaned from Census information from 2009 to 2013, found 60.3 million residents, or more than one in five people over the age of 5, speaks a language other than English at home. Spanish is the top alternative, with 37.5 million home speakers, followed by Chinese with 2.9 million home speakers.
Other top languages with more than 1 million home-speakers were French, German, Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog. Arabic, meanwhile, was nearing the 1 million mark.
But the breadth of languages was also apparent, with about 25,000 speaking Finnish at home, about 212,000 speaking Hebrew, approximately 166,000 speaking Navajo and 237,000 or so speaking Armenian.
“While most of the U.S. population speaks only English at home or a handful of other languages like Spanish or Vietnamese, the American Community Survey reveals the wide-ranging language diversity of the United States,” said Erik Vickstrom, a Census Bureau statistician. “For example, in the New York metro area alone, more than a third of the population speaks a language other than English at home, and close to 200 different languages are spoken. Knowing the number of languages and how many speak these languages in a particular area provides valuable information to policymakers, planners and researchers.”
Languages spoken at home are only part of the story for those policymakers. The bigger issue is how many of them are not proficient in English, meaning governments and businesses need to try to reach them in their own languages.
Those numbers were surprising: More than 56 percent of those who speak Spanish at home said they also speak English “very well.”
Asian language-speakers, by contrast, do not fare as well. The Census said just 40 percent of the 1.4 million residents who speak Vietnamese in their homes also speak English “very well,” and only about 45 percent of those who speak Chinese or Korean at home are also proficient in English.
Steven A. Camarota, a demographer at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the findings were eye-catching because language skills usually increase the longer immigrants have been here and the higher their educational attainment. Vietnamese immigrants generally have been in the U.S. for some time, while Chinese immigrants have high education levels.
Mr. Camarota also cautioned about the data, saying the Census asks residents to grade themselves on their English skills.
“It’s based on self-evaluation. It doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless, it just means that Asians might judge themselves much harsher,” he said.
The numbers also focus on those who speak a language other than English at home, so it’s possible that Asians who learn English adopt it for use in their homes at a higher rate than Spanish-speakers, which would skew the numbers.
The rate of English proficiency varied widely. For example, 80 percent of those who speak Hindi at home told the Census they also speak English “very well.” So did 84 percent of German-speakers, 76 percent of Greek-speakers and 73 percent of those who spoke Italian at home. But some 40 percent of Polish home-speakers struggled with English proficiency, as did 47 percent of Russian speakers.
Schools in particular grapple with how to reach students who struggle with English.
The federal Department of Education said 4.4 million students, or about 9.2 percent of the total, were deemed English language learners in the 2012-13 school year. Local school districts say the extra costs for educating those students run thousands of dollars more than the average student who speaks English proficiently.