By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of people in the United States who speak a language other than English at home has nearly tripled over the past three decades, far outpacing the overall population growth, U.S. data released on Tuesday showed.
While Spanish remains the most widely spoken language after English, other languages, particularly those from South Asia and Africa, have also soared in use, the U.S. Census Bureau said in a report.
Some 60.6 million people, or nearly one in five people in the United States aged 5 or older, spoke a language other than English at home in 2011, according to the report. That is up from 23 million in 1980, or almost one in 11.
Over the three decades, the number of people speaking a language other than English at home rose 158 percent, far faster than the overall U.S. population, which grew 38 percent.
Linguistics expert Peter Sayer said the findings highlight increasing "multilingualism" in the United States as a growing number of people speak at least one other language besides English.
"Spanish is the main language, but there's an increasing amount of linguistic diversity," said Sayer, a professor at The University of Texas at San Antonio's Department of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies.
Among those who speak a language other than English at home, two-thirds speak Spanish. About 37.6 million people in the United States spoke Spanish at home in 2011, up from about 11 million in 1980, the Census report found.
Chinese was the next most widely spoken language with nearly 2.9 million speakers in 2011.
Those two languages, along with Vietnamese, Russian, Persian, Armenian, Korean and Tagalog have seen their use more than double in the United states over the last 30 years. Other Asian and African languages such as Hindi and Swahili have also seen significant growth, the Census report said.
Meanwhile, many European languages are fading in the United States.
There are now half as many Italian speakers in the United States as there were in 1980. German, Hungarian, French, Greek, Yiddish, and Polish also saw significant drop-offs, according to the Census Bureau. The United States has tracked language use since 1890.
The changes reflect a continuing shift in America's make-up amid the latest wave of immigration from Asia and other regions following influxes from Mexico and other Central and Latin American countries and, before that, Europe.
"While increased immigration led to gains for some language groups, other groups experienced aging populations and dwindling migrant flows into the United States," the report said.
"As people get older and spend time in the United States, they are increasingly likely to make English their main language," wrote Camille Ryan, the report's author and statistician at the agency.
The language trend does not appear to be hurting the use of English, which remains the most widely spoken language in U.S. homes, the findings showed.
Among those who speak another language, 78 percent said they speak English "well" or "very well," while 22 percent said they speak English "not well" or "not at all," the 2011 data showed.
Sayer said the data dispels the notion that immigrants resist learning English. "We continue to be a country of immigrants, but that misconception of immigrants not learning English is not really true," he said.
(Additional reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)