February 3, 2014

Coke, “America the Beautiful,” and the language of diversity

Coca-Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” ad, that aired during Sunday night’s Super Bowl, sought to portray ethnic diversity in the U.S. by featuring “America the Beautiful” sung in several languages. The many different kinds of people in the ad – Hispanics, cowboys, Muslims, Jews and Asians – were all implicitly united by their identity as “American.”

But not everyone was happy with Coke’s celebration of diversity in the country. After the ad was aired, Twitter lit up with commentary  under various hashtags (such as #SpeakAmerican) critical of the company. Some commenters found it disrespectful to sing “America the Beautiful” in any language other than English, while others said immigrants need to learn English to live in the United States.

FT_Coke_LanguageSo how linguistically diverse is the United States? Data from the 2011 American Community Survey (ACS) show that 21% of Americans age five or older  speak a language other than English at home. Among this group, a majority say they speak English “very well” (58%), and 19% say they speak English “well.” Roughly one-in-seven (15%) of those who speak a language other than English at home say they do not speak English well, and 7% report having no English language skill at all.

Other than English, the language most commonly spoken by Americans is Spanish. ACS data show that 37.6 million Americans age five or older speak Spanish in their home. Other languages, including ones highlighted by the Coke commercial, have a much more limited presence. Chinese is spoken by 2.8 million Americans, Tagalog by 1.7 million Americans and Korean by 1.1 million Americans age five or older.

The eight languages shown in the accompanying chart account for 83% of those Americans who speak a language other than English at home. In all,  there are 381 languages spoken in the U.S. that are counted by the Census Bureau, and detailed information is available for 106 of them.

Topics: Television, Internet Activities, Demographics, Language

  1. Photo of Neha Sahgal

    is associate director of religion research at Pew Research Center.