English-Language Learners

U.S. Schools See Surge in Number of Arabic- and Chinese-Speaking English-Learners

By Corey Mitchell — January 07, 2020 2 min read

Spanish remains the language most frequently spoken by English-learners in U.S. schools by a wide margin, with roughly 76 percent of the nation’s 5 million English-learners speaking Spanish, but the numbers for several other languages are surging.

Overall, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Somali were the top five languages spoken by English-language learners in the nation’s K-12 public schools during the 2016-17 school year, according to recently released data from the U.S. Department of Education.

The percentage of Arabic-speaking English-learners, the second-largest group, has increased 75 percent over the past eight years to 122,000. But even with the rapid growth of native Arabic speakers in U.S. schools, this group still accounts for only about 2.5 percent of the entire English-learner population.

Roughly 1 in 6 of the Arabic-speaking English-learners, about 21,000 students, attend schools in Michigan, which has a large Arab-American population. Schools in the states of Illinois, New York, and Virginia all enrolled more than 5,000 Arabic-speaking English-learners during the 2016-17 school year.

Data show that Arabic bypassed Chinese as the second most common language for English-learners during the 2013-14 school year.

Despite the change, the number of Chinese speakers is also on the rise, increasing 35 percent over the past eight years to 104,000. The report did not distinguish between Cantonese and Mandarin speakers. More than one-third of the Chinese-speaking English-learners attend schools in California, while close to 20 percent attend school in New York.

Here’s a look at the data from the 2016-17 school year:

Altogether, almost 83 percent of the nation’s English-learners are native speakers of one of the five top languages, but there is plenty of linguistic diversity among the nation’s English-learners: The Education Department report found that 50 languages were represented among individual states’ top five most commonly spoken languages.

Spanish was the most commonly spoken English-learner language in 46 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. In the remaining states, the top English-learner languages were:


  • In Alaska, almost 39 percent spoke Yupik indigenous languages.
  • In Hawaii, 18 percent spoke Iloko, a native language of the Philippines.
  • In Maine, 31 percent spoke Somali.
  • In Vermont, 24 percent spoke Nepali.

Here’s a look at the full fact sheet from the office of English language acquisition:

OELA Top Languages by corey_c_mitchell on Scribd

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Photo Credit: Joshua Chee answers questions in Chinese during Chinese-language class at Herricks Middle School in Albertson, N.Y. as teacher Elizabeth Yu Ellsworth listens.

--Mustafah Abdulaziz for Education Week

Graphic Credit: U.S. Department of Education office of English language acquisition

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