Recently published U.S. Census data shows there are a record 63.2 million U.S. residents who speak a language other than English at home. That’s 1 of 5 people. The Census uses over 380 categories to classify all the languages spoken, but nearly 80% of this group fall into top 10 languages. That few? Well, yes and no. When you look closer at languages on this list, the linguistic and cultural diversity is striking. It serves as a great reminder for any organization communicating with limited English proficient persons that all people from a particular language group are not the same. Let's take a deeper dive and see some examples.
Spanish holds the first spot on the Top 10 list, and after English, is the most common language spoken in the U.S. According to a 2015 study by the Instituto Cervantes, the U.S. ranks second among all countries, behind only Mexico, in the number of Spanish speakers. Spanish is the official language of 20 countries throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and of course, Spain. Across the Spanish-speaking world, there are significant variations in expressions and vocabulary. A car in Spain is a “coche” while in Latin America, a car is "carro." A Mexican’s “frijoles” or beans, are a Puerto Rican’s “habichuelas” and a Venezuelan’s “caraotas”. The U.S. Spanish speaking population reflects the same diversity as the home countries of Spanish speaking immigrants.
Chinese, the next language on the Top 10 List, offers even a more complex picture than Spanish. Chinese is not a single spoken language, and the U.S. Census actually combines multiple languages and dialects spoken in China, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Fuchow, Wu and others. While related, these languages are not all mutually intelligible. So even though Chinese is categorized as one language by the U.S. Census, communicating with individuals in this group can be far more complex than it seems at first glance.
Further down on Top 10 list is French. Are these all immigrants from France? Some are, however others may be modern-day immigrants who are French-speaking Canadians, or Cajun descendants from 18th century Acadian settlers in Louisiana, or immigrants from former French territories in Africa. Again, a common language but a wide range in language, national culture, traditions and immigrant experience. This French speaking group contributes richness to the U.S. whether they came from Paris, Dakar, Quebec or St. Martin’s Parish, Louisiana.
Arabic, also on the Top 10 List, brings as much complexity to this discussion as the other great world languages. Arabic is spoken across an immense territory from the Middle East across North Africa. Geography, history and many centuries have resulted in numerous regional dialects of Arabic. While they are largely mutually intelligible, somebody from Cairo may still have difficulty understanding somebody from Casablanca or Baghdad. It’s reassuring to remember that while Arabic may seem tremendously complicated to English speakers, it also gave us everyday words we use in English, like sugar, alfalfa and zero.
For an organization facing language barriers with an increasingly diverse population, clear communication is essential to getting your job done efficiently, quickly and safely. As examples from The Top 10 List demonstrated, whether an individual’s native language is Spanish, Chinese, French, Arabic or something else entirely, you can’t assume this person is just like the last person you met who spoke that language. To be ready for the next time your organization encounters a limited English speaker, you need to have a language access plan that accounts for your business needs, and qualified linguists to support it.
For more information on ensuring your organization is able to communicate in any situation, download our free guide: "Language Access Solutions: Bridging Language Barriers Builds Business."