approximately 530 language names corresponding to about 380 language codes.1 Some of these languages are nearing extinction. Another group, International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has established code sets for thousands of languages; the ISO language lists and particularly their coding focus on distinct languages with distinct codes, whereas the Census Bureau is more likely to give related languages the same code. The ISO codes have evolved from a first-generation two-letter coding system (ISO 639-1), to a three-letter system to accommodate additional languages primarily for bibliographic uses (ISO 639-2), to a set that now incorporates more three-letter codes to cover 6,000 known languages in the world (ISO 639-3). The ISO 639-3 codes are intended “to provide a comprehensive set of identifiers for all languages for use in a wide range of applications, including linguistics, lexicography and internationalization of information systems.”2

The subcommittee list began with the Census Bureau’s summary file 3 (SF3) technical documentation list of approximately 530 languages and 380 three digit numerical codes;3 these are presented in the first two columns. Names that are not in all caps are considered to have a relationship to an ALL CAPS language name and receive the same code.4 The Census Bureau could not confirm whether persons speaking the ALL CAPS languages would be understood by those with the same code; the online Excel file can be sorted by the code number to see which languages have overlapping codes. Additional language names, not on the Census list, were added to the Census names column based on previous surveys conducted by Hospital Research & Educational Trust (HRET) of a representative sample of hospitals and the National Association of Community Health Centers of a representative sample of health centers;5 requests to Language Line, an interpretation and translation service;6 and subcommittee collection of additional names from a handful of providers.7 The languages added to the initial Census list are indicated by an * next to the Census code number; the code number assigned was provided by Census Bureau staff to indicate how they would have coded the response; some remain uncoded.8 This resulted in approximately 650 total language names, of which approximately 300 were identified as being used in a health care context. A column was added to indicate categories for which the Modern Language Association reports there were responses in Census 2000;9 the subcommittee ran Census PUMS data but did not find any further languages since languages with smaller numbers of persons reporting the language were aggregated together.

Each language in the first column was then matched to different generations of ISO codes which are alphabetic rather than numeric codes. ISO 639-2 codes are maintained by the Library of Congress and are coded as two letters; the ISO 639-3 codes are three letter codes currently maintained by SIL International. ISO codes start with the most comprehensive set (ISO-639-3); after the codes, the language name under the ISO categorization scheme is listed.

The names of languages often have multiple possible spellings, even between the Census Bureau and ISO 639 language lists there are alternate spellings, and patients may provide an alternative spelling as well. The column,


U.S. Census Bureau. 2007. Census 2000 Summary File 3–Technical documentation. Appendix G language code list. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.


SIL International. 2009. Relationship between ISO 639-3 and the other parts of ISO 639. (accessed July 20, 2009).


The Census Bureau included the notation n.e.c. next to a language name to means not elsewhere categorized. Some of the languages that may have fallen into these categories may now be listed in column A due to the additions the subcommittee made to the list of languages.


U.S. Census Bureau. 2002. Census 2000 summary file 3: Technical documentation. (accessed August 3, 2009).


Hasnain-Wynia, R., J. Yonek, D. Pierce, R. Kang, and C. H. Greising. 2006. Hospital language services for patients with limited English proficiency: Results from a national survey. Chicago, IL: Health Research and Educational Trust (HRET)/AHA; National Association of Community Health Centers. 2008. Serving patients with limited English proficiency: Results of a community health center survey. Bethesda, MD: National Association of Community Health Centers and National Health Law Program.


Language Line Service. 2009. List of languages by Language Line Services. (accessed June 12, 2009).


Personal communications from Emilio Carrillo, New York Presbyterian Hospital, May 11, 2009; Alice Chen, San Francisco General Hospital, July 7, 2009; Maria Moreno and Traci Van, Sutter Health, July 22, 2009; Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, University of Wisconsin Health, May 11, 2009.


Personal communication, H. Shin, U.S. Census Bureau, July 13, 2009.


Modern Language Association. 2009. All languages reported to the U.S. Census in 2000. (accessed May 26, 2009).

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