Religion and Social Trends

About One in Four Americans Can Hold a Conversation in a Second Language

Spanish is by far the most frequently spoken second language

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ – A new Gallup poll reveals that about one-fourth of the country can speak a language other than English well enough to hold a conversation. Spanish is the most frequently spoken second language, followed by French and German. The poll also shows that most Americans believe a second language is a valuable, although not necessarily essential, skill. More than three-quarters say it is essential for new immigrants into this country to learn to speak English.

One-Quarter of Americans Able to Hold a Conversation in a Second Language
Twenty-six percent of adult Americans speak a language other than English well enough to hold a conversation, according to the new poll, conducted March 26-28, 2001. The ability to speak a second language:

  • Decreases with advanced age-- Younger Americans, aged 18-29, are far more likely than other age groups to be bilingual, with 43% able to speak a second language, compared to 25% of those aged 30 to 49, 22% of those 50 to 64, and only 15% of Americans 65 and older.
  • Increases with advanced education-- Twenty percent of high school graduates are bilingual, compared to 25% of those with some college experience, 33% of college graduates and 43% of those with postgraduate education.
  • Varies by region-- A substantially larger percentage of residents of the western United States -- 40% -- are bilingual, compared to 25% of those living in the East, 22% in the South, and 19% in the Midwest.
  • Varies by ideology --Those who characterize their ideology as liberal (33%) are more likely to be bilingual than are moderates (26%) and conservatives (23%).

The majority of Americans who can speak a second language speak Spanish (55%). Much smaller proportions speak French (17%) and German (10%). Even smaller proportions report speaking Italian and Chinese and other languages.

While slightly larger percentages of men than women speak Spanish as a second language (59% vs. 52% of those who are bilingual, respectively), almost twice as many women as men among this group speak French -- 23% compared to 12%. Additionally, among those that speak a second language, the proportion that speaks Spanish decreases markedly with age. About six out of ten bilingual Americans under 50 speak Spanish, compared to slightly more than four out of ten of those who are 50 and older. In contrast, the likelihood of speaking Frenchincreaseswith age.

The proportion of Americans who speak French as a second language also increases with advanced education, while those who speak a second language but do not have college education are slightly more likely to speak Spanish.

Perhaps as a result of the cultural diversity created by recent waves of immigration into this country, Americans feel strongly that new arrivals in the United States should speak English. At the same time, Americans are much less likely to feel that the average American needs to speak a language other than English.

  • About one in five Americans -- 19% -- believe that it is essential to speak a second language in general and an additional 50% of the population believe that knowledge of a foreign language is a valuable skill but is not necessarily essential. Nearly one-third -- 30% -- feel that it is not too important or not important at all to speak a second language.
  • More than three-quarters (77%) believe it is crucial for immigrants living in the United States to speak English. An additional 19% believe it is important but not crucial. White Americans are more likely to believe it is essential for immigrants to speak English than are nonwhites -- 81% compared to 60%.

The perceived importance of being bilingual in today's society, not unexpectedly, is highest in those sub-groups within the American population that are most likely to already speak a second language. For example, younger Americans are strongly more likely to be bilingual, and are also the most likely to say that conversational ability in a foreign language is essential. Additionally, Americans living in the western United States are somewhat more likely than those living in other regions to stress the ability to speak a second language.

Survey Methods

The results reported here are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,024 adults, 18 years and older, conducted March 26-28, 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

How important is it that Americans learn to speak a second language other than English -- it is essential, it is important but not essential, it is not too important, or it is not at all important?

 

 


Essential


Important

Not too important

Not at all important

No
opinion

           

2001 Mar 26-28

19%

50

18

12

1



How important is it that immigrants living in the United States learn to speak English -- it is essential, it is important but not essential, it is not too important, or it is not at all important?

 

 


Essential


Important

Not too important

Not at all important

No
opinion

           

2001 Mar 26-28

77%

19

2

1

1



Do you personally speak a language other than English well enough to hold a conversation?

 

Yes

No

No opinion

2001 Mar 26-28

26%

74

0



Which foreign language do you speak? [Open-ended]

BASED ON -- 283 -- WHO SPEAK FOREIGN LANGUAGE; ±6 PCT. PTS.

 

 

2001 Mar 26-28

 

%

   

Spanish

55

French

17

German

10

Italian

3

Chinese

2

   

Other

13

No opinion

0



Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/1825/About-One-Four-Americans-Can-Hold-Conversation-Second-Language.aspx Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A +1 202.715.3030