Almost all Americans speak English. Most Americans speak with accents that are recognisable among themselves and with the accent traditionally associated with the Midwest, popularised in the 20th century by American radio, television and cinema. Although many Americans can recognise differences between various accents, the accents most likely to be perceived as distinctive by foreign visitors are those spoken in the South and Texas, the Boston area, the New York area, the upper Midwest and Hawaii.
Many African Americans and some other Americans also speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE), whose grammar and vocabulary are somewhat different from the styles of American English that are usually considered standard. AAVE has had a major influence on general American slang and colloquialisms in particular. Never assume that a person who is black speaks AAVE, especially since many African or Caribbean immigrants or their descendants do not speak this language, and also be aware that many African Americans can switch effortlessly from AAVE to Standard American English. Spanglish – a mixture of Spanish and English – is also common in many areas with large Hispanic populations, and switching between Spanglish and Standard American English is equally common.
Visitors are generally expected to speak and understand English. Although many Americans learn a foreign language in school (usually Spanish and then French), it is safe to assume that the average citizen has not progressed beyond the basics. Popular tourist spots often have signs and information in other languages. Americans have a long history of immigration and are very accommodating of foreign accents and will sometimes go out of their way to help you by speaking with a standard accent.
American English is somewhat different from the English spoken in other parts of the English-speaking world. These differences are mostly minor and relate mainly to small differences in spelling as well as pronunciation. See the article on English language varieties for a detailed discussion.
Spanish is the first language of Puerto Rico and a large minority of mainlanders (with the fifth largest Spanish-speaking population in the world). Spanish speakers in the United States are often first- or second-generation Puerto Ricans or Latin American immigrants. As a result, spoken Spanish is almost invariably a Latin American dialect. Spanish is the second main language in many parts of the United States, such as California, the Southwest, Texas, Florida and the metropolitan areas of Chicago and New York. Many of these areas have Spanish-language radio and television stations with local, national and Mexican programming. Most federal government publications and some state and local publications are available in Spanish. Many facilities and government agencies in major business and tourist areas have Spanish-speaking staff on duty, and it is possible with some difficulty to speak only Spanish in major cities and tourist attractions.
French is the primary second language in rural areas near the Quebec border, in some parts of Louisiana and among some African immigrants, but it is not widely spoken elsewhere. In South Florida, Haitian immigrants primarily speak Haitian Creole, a distinct language derived from French, although a significant number also speak French.
As a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, some products now have trilingual packaging (English, Spanish and French) and are sold throughout the trading bloc, including household products and small electrical appliances. However, the vast majority of consumer goods are labelled in English only, meaning that a rudimentary knowledge of English is required to shop.
Hawaiian is the native language of Hawaii and Hawaiian Pidgin, a mixture of English, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Cantonese and several other languages, is also spoken by many native Hawaiians. However, English is the most widely spoken language in Hawaii, and Japanese is also widely spoken.
Cantonese and Mandarin are common in the various Chinatowns in the larger cities. Smaller immigrant groups sometimes form their own pockets of common language, including Russian, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Tagalog, Korean and Vietnamese. Chicago, for example, has the second largest ethnic Polish population in the world after Warsaw (although most Poles in the Chicago area were born in the United States and speak only English). The Amish, who have lived in Pennsylvania and Ohio for generations, speak a German dialect.
Some Native Americans speak their respective mother tongues, especially on reservations in the West. But despite efforts to revive them, many Native American languages are threatened with extinction and first-language speakers are rare. Navajo speakers in Arizona and New Mexico are an exception to this rule, but a clear majority also speak and understand English.
In summary, unless you are sure you are in an area that has only recently been inhabited by immigrants, it is a big challenge to travel to the US without knowing English.
American Sign Language, or ASL, is the dominant sign language in the United States. When events are interpreted, they are interpreted in ASL. Users of French Sign Language and other related languages may find ASL understandable because they use much of the same vocabulary, but users of Japanese Sign Language, British Sign Language or Auslan will not. Closed captioning on television is widespread, but far from universal. Many theatres offer FM loops or other aids to listening, but subtitles and interpreters are less common.
For blind people, many signs and advertisements include Braille transcriptions of printed English. Large chain restaurants, museums and parks may have menus and guides in Braille, but you will probably have to ask for them.