The United States is becoming more linguistically diverse. This trend is a precarious one, and far from uniform across the country, but it has the potential to have a significant impact on our society.
The American Community Survey, the Census Bureau’s annual demographic survey, tracks a number of statistics — to include those that help us measure linguistic diversity. It publishes one-year estimates (collected over the course of the previous year) for the quick release of key data and five-year estimates (collected, as one might expect, over the course of the five preceding years) for a more accurate picture of long-term demographic trends.
Of the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas (“MSAs”), only a few are showing signs of a decrease or stagnation in diversity. Between 2010 and 2015, the ACS’ five-year estimates for the top 50 MSAs showed an average increase of 0.15 percentage points annually. This means that, on average, we saw the number of people who spoke a non-English language at home grow roughly 0.15 percentage points every year — from 20.23 percent in 2010 to 20.99 percent in 2015.
What is the significance of these numbers? Yes, America’s big cities are becoming increasingly linguistically diverse; but there is more in the details. The picture is less clear at the local level. The Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford MSA logged an estimated average annual increase of 0.48 percentage points between 2010 and 2015. The Orlando area experienced the greatest change in the share of its population that speaks a non-English language at home. In 2010, an estimated 28.2 percent of Orlandoans spoke a language other than English at home; in 2015, that figure was 30.6 percent.
At the other extreme lies this author’s hometown of San Antonio. The share of San Antonians who spoke a language other than English at home fell approximately 0.44 percentage points annually during the five-year period between 2010 and 2015. The only other MSA to experience a decline — at least according to ACS estimates — was the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale (formerly “Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale”) area. These two, rapidly-growing southwestern cities represent the lowest end of our analysis, with the Pittsburgh and St. Louis areas recording stagnant figures.
This will undoubtedly open a pandora’s box of explanations. We know that San Antonio and Phoenix are experiencing significant domestic migration. Many Americans are packing up their bags and leaving the large coastal metropolises for sunnier days in the southwest. In fact, Maricopa County recorded the largest population increase of any American county last year. For the past eight years, that title belonged to Harris County, Texas, which encompasses the urban core of Houston. As we’d expect, the percentage of foreign-born residents in the Phoenix area dropped from an estimated 15.5% in 2010 to 14.4% in 2015.
Yet, the explanations one might draw for Phoenix are less applicable in the case of San Antonio. In contrast to the Valley of the Sun, the percentage of foreign-born residents in the San Antonio-New Braunfels MSA increased slightly from 11.4% in 2010 to 11.7% in 2015. The Hispanic population of the Alamo City also grew approximately one percentage point over that same period. If anything, we expect an increase in linguistic diversity.
While domestic migration is partially responsible for the relative loss in linguistic diversity, something much more fundamental to American society is at play here. The United States has always been a linguistically diverse nation, opening its gates to over a million permanent residents every year. However, it has also traditionally been a nation of assimilation, anglicizing the children and grandchildren of immigrants as they attempt to move up the socioeconomic ladder.
In 2010, 34.1% of Hispanic San Antonians over the age of five only spoke English at home. In 2015, that figure jumped to 39.5%. This is a phenomenon that stretches well beyond the borders of Texas, with the percentage of Hispanic or Latino Americans 5 years of age and older who only speak English gaining roughly 0.55 percentage points per year. Still, the prevalence Spanish is receding at a faster rate in San Antonio than we are seeing in the nation as a whole.
Other Sun Belt cities with a lower-than-average increase in linguistic diversity include Austin, Jacksonville, and Los Angeles — all high-growth cities that are attractive to Americans looking to relocate from urban centers up north. The two metropolitan areas that posted changes approaching zero percentage points were those of Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Steel City’s relatively small foreign-born population (3.6%, which has only increased 0.5 percentage points between 2010 and 2015) explains part of it. Foreign-born Pittsburghers grew slowly as a percentage of the population when compared to the whole United States, where the foreign-born population made up 13.2% of all residents nationally. St. Louis posted similarly modest gains with its small foreign-born population, increasing its share by 0.4 percentage points over that five-year period.
As with most things in life, trends are more complicated than they appear when you put them under a magnifying glass. Stricter immigration laws could easily discourage or even decrease linguistic diversity in the United States. If we are to accept the historical model, it is unlikely that any tongue — including Spanish — would be able to survive as a major language in this country without a steady stream of immigrants.
The ACS’ one-year figures show us that an estimated 21.5% of the population spoke a non-English language in 2015. That’s up from 20.6% in 2010, which is up from 19.4% in 2005. Nonetheless, even if the universe was completely predictable and we were looking at a steady trend that increased two percentage points per decade in a linear fashion, the United States still would not become majority multilingual for another 150 years. And we all know that a lot can change socially, politically, and environmentally in a century and a half. That steady stream of immigration — fueled by developing countries whose birth rates are falling and will likely continue to fall — is unsustainable in the long term. As people around the world have less children, and the relative number of immigrants slows over the next century or two, the United States will have to decide if linguistic diversity is something worth preserving.