The US census is finally counting how many people speak Tamil, Punjabi, Telugu, and Bengali
As of last week, the US Census Bureau is taking stock of just how many people in the US speak Tamil—along with Punjabi, Telugu, and Bengali.
Historically, the way the US census tracked South Asians was messy and often inaccurate—not tracking them at all or confusing them for white. But their ranks in the US have been growing.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, was born to parents from Punjab, India. The CEOs of Adobe (Shantanu Narayen) and Microsoft (Satya Nadella) are both from Hyderabad, where Telugu is the primary language. Comedian/actor Aziz Ansari’s parents speak Tamil, as does Ansari, to a degree, per the travel log of his trip to India.
The CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, grew up in Chennai, where Tamil is the main language. Chennai is the capital of Tamil Nadu, which literally means “The Land of Tamils.” According to the 2001 Indian census, close to 90% of people living in Tamil Nadu speak it fluently. (It also is the language Ansari’s parents use in the touching and appropriately titled episode “Parents,” from his Netflix series Master of None.)
Not including English, Bengali is the most-spoken language in India after Hindi, and is the main language of Bangladesh. Telugu and Tamil are among the most popular languages in south India. Globally, Tamil is spoken by over 70 million people, though in the US, only 250,000 or so people speak it. While Punjabi is most popular in Pakistan, globally, it’s almost as widely spoken as Italian (paywall).
Gujarati and Bengali, to say nothing of other Asian languages like Chinese and Korean, are more popular than Tamil in the US—though no Indian language, aside from Hindi, makes it into the top 10 most popular spoken languages (even discounting Spanish and English).
If you currently live in the US and don’t speak these newly tracked languages, it’s likely you know either many people who do, or none at all. Most Telugu and Tamil speakers in the US are concentrated in California, followed closely by Texas and New Jersey. Almost half (48%) of Bengali speakers in the US are in California, and more than a third of Punjabi-fluent Americans reside in New York.