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Census 2000 Brief: Language Use and English-Speaking Ability: 2000

Written by:
Report Number C2KBR-29

The ability to communicate with government and private service providers, schools, businesses, emergency personnel, and many other people in the United States depends greatly on the ability to speak English.1 In Census 2000, as in the two previous censuses, the U.S. Census Bureau asked people aged 5 and over if they spoke a language other than English at home. Among the 262.4 million people aged 5 and over, 47.0 million (18 percent) spoke a language other than English at home.

This report, part of a series that presents population and housing data collected in Census 2000, presents data on language spoken at home and the ability to speak English of people aged 5 and over. It describes population distributions and characteristics for the United States, including regions, states, counties, and selected places with populations of 100,000 or more.

The questions illustrated in Figure 1 were asked in the census in 1980, 1990, and 2000. Various questions on language were asked in the censuses from 1890 to 1970, including a question on “mother tongue” (the language spoken in the person’s home when he or she was a child).

The first language question in Census 2000 asked respondents whether they spoke a language other than English at home. Those who responded “Yes” to Question 11a were asked what language they spoke. The write-in answers to Question 11b (specific language spoken) were optically scanned and coded. Although linguists recognize several thousand languages in the world, the coding operation used by the Census Bureau put the reported languages into about 380 categories of single languages or language families.2

For people who answered “Yes” to Question 11a, Question 11c asked respondents to indicate how well they spoke English. Respondents who said they spoke English “Very well” were considered to have no difficulty with English. Those who indicated they spoke English “Well,” “Not well,” or “Not at all” were considered to have difficulty with English — identified also as people who spoke English less than “Very well.”

1 The text of this report discusses data for the United States, including the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Data for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico are shown in Table 2 and Figure 5.

2 More detailed information on languages and language coding can be found in “Summary File 3: 2000 Census of Population and Housing Technical Documentation” issued December 2002 (www.census.gov/prod/cen2000/doc/sf3.pdf).

Page Last Revised - October 8, 2021
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