Chinese language and varieties in the United States

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Manhattan Chinatown

Chinese speakers in the United States
Year Speakers
1960a 89,609
1970a 190,260
1980[1] 630,806
1990[2] 1,319,462
2000[3] 2,022,143
2010[4] 2,808,692
^a Foreign-born population only[5]

Chinese languages, mostly Cantonese, are collectively the third most-spoken language in the United States, and are mostly spoken within Chinese-American populations and by immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, especially in California and New York.[6] Around 2004, over 2 million Americans spoke varieties of Chinese, with Mandarin becoming increasingly common due to immigration from mainland China and to some extent Taiwan.[6] Within this category, approximately one third of respondents described themselves as speaking Cantonese or Mandarin specifically, with the other two thirds answering "Chinese", despite the lack of mutual intelligibility between different varieties of Chinese. This phenomenon makes it more difficult to readily identify the relative prevalence of any single Chinese language in the United States.[7]

According to data reported on the 2000 US Census long-form, 259,750 people spoke "Cantonese", with 58.62% percent residing in California and the next most with 16.19% in New York.[8] The actual number of Cantonese speakers was probably higher. In the 1982–83 school year, 29,908 students in California were reported to be using Cantonese as their primary home language. Approximately 16,000 of these students were identified as limited English proficient (LEP).[9]

According to data reported on the 2000 US Census long-form, 84,590 people spoke "Taiwanese Hokkien".[10] The county with the most Hokkien speakers was Los Angeles County with 21,990 (0.250% of County population) followed by Orange County with 5,855 (0.222% of County population). The county with the highest percentage of Hokkien speakers was Calhoun County, Texas at 0.845% (160) followed by Fort Bend County, Texas at 0.286% (935) and Los Angeles County, California. According to data collected from 2005–2009 by the American Community Survey, 76,822 people spoke Taiwanese Hokkien.[11]

In New York City, Standard Mandarin Chinese was spoken as a native language among only ten percent of Chinese speakers as 2002, but was being used as a secondary dialect and replacing Cantonese as their lingua franca.[12]

Chinese (all varieties) speakers by states in 2000[13]
State Chinese speakers
California 815,386
New York 374,627
Texas 91,500
New Jersey 84,345
Massachusetts 71,412
Illinois 65,251


Chinese language(s) spoken at home according 2005–2009 American Community Survey[14]
Name Number of speakers Margin of error Speaks English "very well" Margin of error
Total 2,896,766 13,255 1,600,886 8,527
"Chinese" 1,867,485 13,875 1,054,885 8,578
Hakka 1,350 307 840 263
"Kan, Hsiang" 50 65 (D) (D)
Cantonese 458,840 6,487 257,625 4,433
Mandarin 487,250 7,953 240,810 5,571
Fuchow 1,450 455 1,175 418
Hokkien 77,675 2,687 44,140 1,939
Wu 2,670 466 1,375 287

Language acquisition[edit]

Chinese Americans teach their children Chinese for a variety of reasons, such as preservation of a unique identity, pride in their cultural ancestry, desire for easy communication with Chinese-speaking family members, and the perception that Chinese will be a useful language as China's economic strength increases. Cantonese, historically the language of most Chinese immigrants, was the third most widely spoken non-English language in the United States in 2004.[6][page needed] Many Chinese schools have been established to accomplish these goals. Most of them have classes only once a week on the weekends, however especially in the past there have been schools that met every day after normal school.[citation needed]

While approximately 9% of Chinese-born immigrants speak only English at home,[15] this proportion may reach as high as 90% by the third generation living in the United States.[16] While usage of Chinese at home, community connections, extracurriculars, and explicit instruction may help mitigate loss of Chinese language proficiency in young Chinese immigrants, the prevalence of English as a majority language in the United States means that many second and third generation Chinese Americans have limited or no ability to speak or read Chinese.[17]

Because all Chinese languages are tonal, monolingual speakers of English often have difficulty producing Chinese tones and may have a pronounced accent or impaired ability to recognize tones in speech.[18] Chinese orthography is also uniquely challenging to acquire fluency in, with each character representing an entire phonosemantic domain, rather than sounds that can be reasoned out piecemeal, as in an alphabet or syllabary.[19]

Chinese immigrants may face competing sociocultural interests in maintaining fluency in Chinese and enforcing Chinese language use among their children. Some Chinese Americans view Chinese language fluency as a core part of a Chinese cultural identity and may opt to use only Chinese in the home or forbid the use of English. Other families view English proficiency and assimilation as key to their children's future success.[20] The status of Asian Americans, and more specifically Chinese Americans as "perpetual foreigners" may be a contributing factor behind the desire for some Chinese Americans to achieve or raise their children towards monolingual English fluency at the expense of Chinese fluency.[21]

These desires are often at odds with the attested benefits of bilingualism, including a stronger sense of cultural identity and social norms, lower incidence of behavioral issues, and ability to comfortably navigate both English and Chinese speaking contexts.[17][22][23]

Chinese as a foreign language[edit]

A 2006 survey by the Modern Language Association found that Chinese accounted for 3% of foreign language class enrollment in the United States, making it the seventh most commonly learned foreign languages in the United States. Most Chinese as foreign language classes teach simplified characters and Standard Mandarin Chinese.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Appendix Table 2. Languages Spoken at Home: 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2007" (Table). United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on July 24, 2017. Retrieved August 6, 2012.
  2. ^ "Detailed Language Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English for Persons 5 Years and Over --50 Languages with Greatest Number of Speakers: United States 1990" (Table). United States Census Bureau. 1990. Archived from the original on July 18, 2018. Retrieved July 22, 2012.
  3. ^ "Language Spoken at Home: 2000". United States Bureau of the Census. Archived from the original on November 29, 2014. Retrieved August 8, 2012.
  4. ^ "2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates: Language spoken at home by ability to speak English for the population 5 years and over". United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on December 5, 2014. Retrieved December 14, 2012.
  5. ^ "Mother Tongue of the Foreign-Born Population: 1910 to 1940, 1960, and 1970" (Table). United States Census Bureau. March 9, 1999. Archived from the original on July 18, 2018. Retrieved August 6, 2012.
  6. ^ a b c Lai, H. Mark (2004). Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. ISBN 0-7591-0458-1.
  7. ^ Cooc, North; Leung, Genevieve. "Who are "Chinese" Language Speakers in the United States?: A Subgroup Analysis with Census Data" (PDF) – via
  8. ^ "Cantonese" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on April 2, 2016. Retrieved April 28, 2016 – via
  9. ^ A Handbook for Teaching Cantonese-Speaking Children (PDF). Sacramento: California State Department of Education. 1984. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 5, 2016. Retrieved October 4, 2017.
  10. ^ "Formosan" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on April 3, 2016. Retrieved April 30, 2016 – via
  11. ^ "Census Data & API Identities". Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence. Archived from the original on June 9, 2016. Retrieved October 4, 2017.
  12. ^ García, Ofelia; Fishman, Joshua A. (2002). The Multilingual Apple: Languages in New York City. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-017281-X.
  13. ^ "Table 5.Detailed List of Languages Spoken at Home for the Population 5 Years and Over by State: 2000" (PDF) (Tables). United States Census Bureau. February 25, 2003. Archived from the original (PDF) on January 17, 2010. Retrieved October 3, 2012.
  14. ^ "How Many People Speak "What Languages" in America". Archived from the original on April 29, 2017. Retrieved October 4, 2017.
  15. ^ "English-Speaking Ability of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 2012" (PDF).
  16. ^ Jia, Gisela; Aaronson, Doris (March 2003). "A longitudinal study of Chinese children and adolescents learning English in the United States". Applied Psycholinguistics. 24 (1): 131–161. doi:10.1017/S0142716403000079. ISSN 1469-1817. S2CID 145303581.
  17. ^ a b Chen, Stephen H.; Zhou, Qing; Uchikoshi, Yuuko (September 14, 2021). "Heritage language socialization in Chinese American immigrant families: prospective links to children's heritage language proficiency". International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 24 (8): 1193–1209. doi:10.1080/13670050.2018.1547680. ISSN 1367-0050. PMC 7597852. PMID 33132738.
  18. ^ Hao, Yen-Chen (March 1, 2012). "Second language acquisition of Mandarin Chinese tones by tonal and non-tonal language speakers". Journal of Phonetics. 40 (2): 269–279. doi:10.1016/j.wocn.2011.11.001. ISSN 0095-4470.
  19. ^ McBride, Catherine Alexandra (September 1, 2016). "Is Chinese Special? Four Aspects of Chinese Literacy Acquisition that Might Distinguish Learning Chinese from Learning Alphabetic Orthographies". Educational Psychology Review. 28 (3): 523–549. doi:10.1007/s10648-015-9318-2. ISSN 1573-336X. S2CID 254471528.
  20. ^ Kondo-Brown, Kimi (January 2006). Heritage Language Development. John Benjamins Publishing Company. ISBN 978-90-272-4143-6.
  21. ^ Dei, George J. Sefa; Hilowle, Shukri (December 4, 2018). Cartographies of Race and Social Difference. Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-97076-9.
  22. ^ Cho, Grace (October 2000). "The Role of Heritage Language in Social Interactions and Relationships: Reflections from a Language Minority Group". Bilingual Research Journal. 24 (4): 369–384. doi:10.1080/15235882.2000.10162773. ISSN 1523-5882. S2CID 145001146.
  23. ^ Costigan, Catherine L.; Dokis, Daphné P. (September 2006). "Relations Between Parent?Child Acculturation Differences and Adjustment Within Immigrant Chinese Families". Child Development. 77 (5): 1252–1267. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2006.00932.x. ISSN 0009-3920. PMID 16999796.
  24. ^ "Languages in the U.S. Educational System". About World Languages. Archived from the original on January 11, 2017. Retrieved October 4, 2017.