The US Census estimates the country’s population to be approaching 336 million people. That’s about 3 million people more than when Slator last analyzed the 2021 data in November 2022. The data showed that close to 68 million out of the total US population of 333 million spoke a language other than English at home.
The data released by the US Census in October 2023 through the American Community Survey (ACS) shows no difference in the estimate of the total number of people who speak a language other than English at home, putting it still at about 68 million, with 29.6 million of those people identified as having limited English proficiency (LEP).
However, the ACS tables containing a breakdown of languages other than English spoken at home reveal an increase in the number of LEP households (the ACS figures are based not on individuals but rather “households,” per the methodology used by the US Census for polling residents in a dwelling, whether they are members of a family or not).
Even though the LEP household criterion is an indicator of potential demand drivers for translation and interpreting, two factors are impacting how those demand drivers ought to be considered by buyers and providers of language services: immigration policy changes under the Biden administration and the advent of AI (already being used by US law enforcement in diverse settings, as reported by news media).
Figures and national origin data alone are not indicative of limited English proficiency. However, a comparison of the 2021 and 2022 census data releases shows an increase across the board in the number of households where languages other than English are spoken, as shown in the table below:
Between the 2022 and the 2023 US Census data releases, a large amount of immigrants and refugees entered the United States legally, with up-to-date figures provided by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP):
Through the end of October 2023, 269,744 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans arrived lawfully and were granted parole under the parole processes. Specifically, 57,243 Cubans, 107,697 Haitians, 48,840 Nicaraguans, and 77,021 Venezuelans were vetted and authorized for travel; and 55,568 Cubans, 99,110 Haitians, 43,267 Nicaraguans, and 71,801 Venezuelans arrived and were granted parole.
Spanish, the dominant language of three of the four countries represented in the CBP data, continues to be the most spoken language in the US after English, with over 42 million speakers. The fourth language represented, Haitian Creole, is spoken in more than 1.1 million households, according to the ACS.
The second most spoken language group listed in ACS data is Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), with 1,609,029 households listed.
The ACS data lists “Other Indo-European languages” as the third largest language cohort other than English spoken in the US, with 2,907,533 speakers. The category groups a vast number of languages, including Romance languages, Germanic languages, Greek, and Russian, to name a few.
Demand for Translators and Interpreters Now “Average”
For a number of years, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasted fast growth for the translation and interpreting professions, 20% in 2022. The narrative cited the occupational growth outlook as “faster than average.” The growth forecast is 4% in 2023, or “as fast as average,” despite a 9% increase in the average annual salary of non-freelance linguists.
Large language models (LLMs) are becoming better at translating in multiple modalities, such as text-to-text, speech-to-text, text-to-speech, and speech-to-speech, and while translators and interpreters remain the experts-in-the-loop, a 16% shift in the occupational outlook is significant.
For the first time, there is no correlation between foreign-language population growth (documented by both the ACS and the CBP) and the inherent need for language access that had long held the occupational outlook for translators and interpreters in “faster than average” growth mode.