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Nearly 1-in-5 Americans Speak Foreign Language at Home

Most also speak English 'very well,' says Census Bureau

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Nearly 47 million people -- about 1-in-5 U.S. residents -- age 5 and older, reported regularly speaking a foreign language at home in 2000, according to the Census Bureau. The figures represented an increase of 15 million people since the 1990 census.

The new census report, Language Use and English-Speaking Ability: 2000, (PDF) said 55 percent of the people who spoke a language other than English at home also reported they spoke English "very well." Combined with those who spoke only English at home, 92 percent of the population age 5 and over had no difficulty speaking English.

Spanish remained the most often spoken language other than English, with Spanish speakers increasing from 17.3 million in 1990 to 28.1 million in 2000, a 62 percent rise. Just over half the Spanish speakers reported speaking English "very well."

In both Hialeah, Fla., and Laredo, Texas, more than 9-in-10 people age 5 and older spoke a foreign language at home -- the highest such proportion among U.S. places of 100,000 population or more. The 10 places with the highest proportions included four in Texas and three in California.

The West was home to more than one-third (37 percent) of all those who spoke a language other than English at home, the highest proportion of any region. California led the states (39 percent), followed by New Mexico (37 percent) and Texas (31 percent).

The number of people who spoke a non-English language at home at least doubled in six states between 1990 and 2000, with the largest percentage increase in Nevada (193 percent). Georgia's residents who spoke a non-English language at home increased by 164 percent, followed by North Carolina (151 percent).

After English (215.4 million) and Spanish (28.1 million), Chinese (2 million) was the language most commonly spoken at home, eclipsing French, German and Italian over the decade of the 90s.

Other highlights from the census report included:

  • Of the 20 non-English languages spoken most widely at home, the largest proportional increase in the 1990s was Russian. Speakers of this language nearly tripled, from 242,000 to 706,000. The second largest increase was among French Creole speakers (including Haitian Creoles), whose numbers more than doubled, from 188,000 to 453,000.

  • The West and South combined had about three times the number of Spanish speakers (21 million) as the Northeast and Midwest combined (7 million).

  • More than 80 percent of the population spoke a non-English language in seven Texas counties -- Maverick, Webb, Starr, Kenedy, Zavala, Presidio and Hidalgo.

    The data are based on the responses from a sample of households who received the census long form. Nationally, about 1-in-6 households were included in the sample. Estimates in the report are subject to sampling and nonsampling error.

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