Although English is by far the most commonly spoken language in the United States, a significant proportion of Americans have proficiency with at least one additional language. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 21.9 percent of Americans regularly speak a language other than English at home. This equates to approximately 67 million people.
Multilingualism in the United States
There are many reasons behind this high incidence of multilingualism. The United States has a considerable immigrant population when compared to other countries. Immigrants and children born to immigrants accounted for more than a quarter of the population in 2021. Significant Hispanic communities can be found in just about every state in America, with more than 43 million people throughout the country speaking Spanish as a main language. Languages of East Asian origin are also ubiquitous, with approximately 3 million native speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin.
Native speakers of European languages are less common, but historic migration from the other side of the Atlantic has left a mark on language demographics. However, the gradual rise in speakers of European languages tends to be driven by education, rather than heritage. Although there are no formal requirements for students to pursue foreign language study at high school level, many teenagers and young adults are turning to alternative online learning sources to improve their foreign language abilities.
Foreign Language Study in American Schools
The United States is something of an outlier when it comes to foreign language study. Unlike elsewhere in the world, there are no strict mandates in place that require students to study modern languages at high school level and beyond. This stands in stark contrast to places like mainland Europe, where most countries demand children begin learning a second language in addition to their mother tongue from as early as the age of six. Furthermore, in certain countries, educational requirements dictate that students must spend at least one academic year studying a second foreign language.
Across Europe, it’s estimated that around 92 percent of students are actively learning a foreign language. In America, the number of students engaged with foreign language education varies from state to state. New Jersey boasts the highest number of high school students studying a second language, with more than half of those enrolled at K-12 level pursuing language education. In most states however, the numbers are less impressive, with only a quarter of high school students pursuing foreign language study.
How Foreign Language Skills Impact Career Prospects
The fact that the United States is lagging behind other countries in terms of modern language education is worrying. Being able to speak at least one language in addition to a native tongue can prove incredibly beneficial when exploring the job market. Being able to communicate fluently in a foreign language makes candidates immediately more desirable for positions with international operations. European languages including German and French are consistently in great demand, although Italian and Portuguese are becoming increasingly sought after.
Although the United States has no national-level requirements in place to promote foreign language study in schools, job-seekers of tomorrow can improve their career prospects by relying on other learning platforms to master a foreign language. There are countless internet resources to help would-be polyglots master a new tongue, while online language tutors provide an inexpensive solution for those looking for virtual face-to-face guidance.