Equity & Diversity

Spanish, Arabic, Chinese Are the Top Home Languages for ELLs in U.S. Schools

By Corey Mitchell — February 22, 2016 2 min read

Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese are the top three home languages for English-language learners in the nation’s K-12 public schools, according to data from the federal education department.

During the 2013-14 school year, nearly 5 million English-learners attended U.S. public elementary and secondary schools; the ELL population represents slightly more than 10 percent of the nation’s K-12 student population.

With 3.8 million students listing Spanish as their home language, about 3 of every 4 English-learners in U.S schools are Spanish speakers.

Arabic and Chinese, the next most common home languages, each had more than 100,000 speakers, with each language accounting for about 2 percent each of ELLs. For Chinese, the data did not distinguish between Mandarin and Cantonese speakers.

In a surprising twist, almost 92,000 English-learners reported English as their home language.

Why English? Here’s a possible explanation from a National Center on Education Statistics blog:

“This may reflect students who live in multilingual households, and those who were adopted from other countries and raised to speak another language but currently live in English-speaking households.”

The 10 most commonly reported home languages of English-learners are, in order: Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, English, Vietnamese, Hmong, Haitian Creole, Somali, Russian, and Korean.

Desire to preserve the native languages of English-learners has driven demand for dual-language programs around the country.

But school districts are just beginning to offer students a broader array of target languages for students to learn. The number of Mandarin programs has surged in recent years. But fewer schools offer dual-language studies options in Arabic and Vietnamese even though they are among the top five home languages for ELLs.

The data offer other insights on the nation’s growing ELL population. The numbers also point out that a greater percentage of elementary-aged students are identified as English-learners, with the percentage tailing off for middle- and high school-aged students.

Roughly 17 percent of kindergarten and 1st grade students are identified as ELLs, compared to 8 percent of 6th graders and slightly less than 5 percent of high school juniors and seniors.

There could be a number of explanations for the comparatively high numbers in early elementary ELLs, including the fact that students are more likely to be reclassified as English-proficient as they progress through school.

Graphic Source: U.S. Department of Education

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.