Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 27, 2013

Is English the official language of Homeland Security?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on August 27, 2013

By default, English is probably the official language of homeland security.  I know some agencies communicate to their constituents in languages other than English.  But I don’t know how many, how frequently, or under what conditions.

Nor do I know what the gap is: that is, how many of the 310 million people in this country don’t know about homeland security because officials don’t speak their language.

Depending on who you ask, there are somewhere between 226 and 382 languages in the US. That’s not especially precise.

Here are some other rough estimates describing our polyglot nation: more than 110 languages are spoken in the San Francisco Bay Area, 224 languages spoken in Los Angeles, 230 in North Texas, and approximately 138 languages spoken in the borough of Queens, New York.

How many languages other than English are spoken in your part of the homeland security enterprise?

How do homeland security professionals communicate with non-English speaking people who need help learning about prevention, response and recovery? How do those professionals learn to listen to people who — even if they are less than comfortable with English — might have something significant to contribute to the nation’s security?

The U.S. Census Bureau offers an on-line map — called the Language Mapper — to help with a partial answer to one of these questions.  You might want to check out the map to see who speaks what in your community.

The 2011 American Community Survey used to generate that map reports more than 20 percent of the U.S. population over 5 years old speak a language other than English at home.

According to the Census Bureau:

The 2011 Language Mapper shows where people speaking specific languages other than English live, with dots representing how many people speak each of 15 different languages. For each language, the mapper shows the concentration of those who report that they speak English less than “very well,” a measure of English proficiency….

The languages available in the interactive map include Spanish, French, French Creole, Italian, Portuguese, German, Russian, Polish, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Arabic….

Of the 60.6 million people who spoke a language other than English at home in 2011, almost two-thirds (37.6 million) spoke Spanish.

Reflecting the overall trend, the percentage speaking Spanish at home grew from 12.0 percent in 2005 to 12.9 percent in 2011….

The recent increase in non-English speakers continues a trend dating back three decades. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of people speaking a language other than English climbed 158 percent, compared with 38 percent for the overall population 5 and older. The seven-fold increase in Vietnamese speakers was the highest percentage jump among 17 of the most common languages, while Spanish speakers posted the largest numerical gain (25.9 million). In contrast, the number speaking Italian, German, Polish, Yiddish and Greek declined over the period….

– In addition to English and Spanish, there were six languages in 2011 spoken at home by at least 1 million people: Chinese (2.9 million), Tagalog (1.6 million), Vietnamese (1.4 million), French (1.3 million), German (1.1 million) and Korean (1.1 million).
– The prevalence of people speaking non-English languages at home varied widely across states, from 44 percent of the population in California to 2 percent in West Virginia.
– Laredo, Texas, led all metro areas with 92 percent of residents age 5 and older speaking a language other than English at home.
– Metro and micro areas in the West, South and Northeast tended to have higher levels of people speaking non-English languages at home. Those in the Midwest tended to have lower levels, with the exception of Illinois.
– Of Spanish speakers, 45 percent of foreign-born naturalized citizens spoke English “very well” compared with 23 percent of foreign-born noncitizens. Those who were native-born, had at least a bachelor’s degree or were not in poverty were more likely to speak English “very well.”
– Eighty percent or more of French and German speakers spoke English “very well.” In contrast, less than 50 percent of those who spoke Korean, Chinese or Vietnamese spoke English “very well”. The rate for Spanish speakers was 56 percent.

So how many languages are spoken in the US?

No one is quite sure.

According to Ethnologue

The number of individual languages listed for United States is 226. Of these, 214 are living and 12 are extinct. Of the living languages, 4 are institutional, 6 are developing, 2 are vigorous, 62 are in trouble, and 140 are dying.

(For intriguing details about the living US languages, see the link here.)

The US Census Bureau says there are “382 language categories of single languages or language families [representing]… the most commonly spoken language other than English at home.”

If English is the de facto official language of homeland security, I wonder what risks that creates for our prevention and response efforts.

I don’t know because I never thought about this before seeing the Language Mapper.

By the way, even though the Language Mapper shows data for only 15 languages (for reasons explained here, here, and here), they do allow you to search the 2010 census in your choice of 60 languages.

Ready.gov offers its information in a dozen languages.  Plus English.

Well done, DHS.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

August 27, 2013 @ 7:35 am

And over 50 million citizens and residents of the USA are functionally illiterate in any language.

And 75% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 40 cannot qualify physically for entry into the Armed Forces of the USA!

While literacy and physical fitness may not be a qualifier for HS they are in fact a qualifier for HS IMO!

Comment by Dan O'Connor

August 27, 2013 @ 9:39 am

To perhaps further Bill’s point…what is the responsibility of citizenship? Does there have to be a national language “law” in order to be a citizen?

The turn of the 20th century and mass immigration had certain requirements with regard to skill set, communication skills, political affiliation et cetera. There is not too much of that now. Is that a good thing, bad thing, or nothing? Social psychologists will discuss assimilation, multiculturalism, and omniculturism as the mechanics of how groups coalesce and form. These same erudite scholars will tell you languages are dying and with this death come a death of culture. Culture is what makes a country.

In the late 1600’s there were 18 different languages being spoken on the streets of New York City. While English was the language of commerce and then economics, those who conducted said business “figured” it out.

There seems to be a requirement for some self-determination and initiative to learn the language of the United States. The Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and all other laws and documents are written in English. Perhaps the Magna Carta has too much impact. The Dutch did leave some of its etymology for us to cultivate. The Bronx, Brooklyn, and a host of words and phrases are Dutch. A million+ Irish shaped our current peculiar American vernacular. So did the Germans, Italians, Jews,…seems everyone left something and that something grew the American English we know today.

I suspect strongly that Spanish and other languages are shaping American English once again. Its shaping, morphing, and enhancing, not eliminating.
One could make the case that extended political correctness and a pursuit of the idea of “fair” post 1965 (The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Hart-Celler Act, INS, Act of 1965,) proliferated this growth of so many languages being used to communicate to those who live in the United States. It’s debatable for sure. The fact remains that nearly 400 years ago a company set up shop in Manhattan to make money and were able to figure out the language barriers for the sake of commerce…seems perhaps now we are no longer capable of figuring it out. So is it the responsible of Government to reach everyone or is it the responsibility of everyone to communicate as their government does? Guess it’s a chicken or the egg conversation.

Great topic though.

Comment by Michael Brady

August 27, 2013 @ 9:52 am


Hmmn, what would happen if all our new American neighbors learned English well enough to engage actively in the political process? Until then any government agency that does not communicate in the language of those it serves is working against its own success.

Comment by Sally Chapman

August 27, 2013 @ 10:51 am

For native English speakers here, we treat foreign languages as more of an academic exercise than a form of communications. Perhaps we should require all citizens to be bi-lingual rather than defaulting to English as the ‘official’ language and dare I say, take a lesson from our European friends by introducing a second language in the early grades where the capacity to learn is best. From my own childrens’ experience, learning a second language in the early years did more than increase the number of friends; it taught them to appreciate the challenges of making themselves understood and appreciate the challenges that non-native English speakers face when conducting their daily lives.

Comment by Quin

August 27, 2013 @ 11:07 am


If some are right, our language still reflects a handful of words from 15,000 years ago.


And even what is “english” language will probably become different versions over time, much like the latin languages, as it continues to become the world’s common second language.


Given the standard rate of change in bureaucracy, all we probably have to do is wait another 200 years and we’ll all have a common language. Well, until we start working on the Tower of Babel again.


But Michael is right, in the meantime the government should reflect its citizens, and has a duty to provide them the services the are obliged to receive.

Comment by Michael Brady

August 27, 2013 @ 4:09 pm


Well and truly said. I wish I’d settled on Spanish early on and stuck with it instead of bouncing around and learning none. My career prospects would have been much broader if I’d been bi-lingual.

On a similar note, our grandchildren ought to be studying Mandarin, Hindi, or Portuguese if they hope to remain in the pack, while the 21st century leaves us monos in the dust.

Comment by Max G

August 27, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

Gracias Chris.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 27, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

Obviously no legal requirement to learn English if you are an illegal immigrant. But no legal requirement to speak English if you are one of the 13 million Green Card holding resident aliens. There is however an English language speaking and writing test to become a Citizen of the USA.

There are still over 6000 languages worldwide but only about 850 have substantial numbers speaking them. An perhaps as COBOL and FORTRAN became languages counting towards a PhD similar AI efforts will dictate eventually humans with a large head but small mouth to take the daily pill for nourishment. And the languages will be those displayed not through the larynx but on various types of technological devices.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 28, 2013 @ 7:00 am

Actually Quinn looking like the world’s second language will be Mandarin one of the over 60 Chinese dialects.

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