Distribution of major language groups in Virginia. Source: L. Douglas Wilder School of Public Affairs, VCU.
Distribution of major language groups in Virginia. Source: L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, VCU.

Second of a three-part series.

If I were writing this column in the 18th century rather than the 21st century, we might be publishing it in German as well as English.

We tend to forget now, but during much of the 1700s and 1800s German was the second language of the United States. In fact, our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, was first published in German because the German-language newspaper in Philadelphia at the time (Der Pennsylvanischer Staatsbote) came out on July 5 and the English-language papers did not. We don’t know what the German population in Philadelphia was in 1776 but by the time of the first census 14 years later, in 1790, it was 38%. In some parts of Pennsylvania, more than half the population was German, topping out at 70% in Lancaster County.

Another place where the German language flourished was in Virginia, specifically the Shenandoah Valley, which was originally settled in two great waves of immigration, one by Germans, the other by the Scots-Irish. The German language spoken by those original settlers persisted for generations. In 1794, a group of farmers in Augusta County famously petitioned Congress to print the nation’s new laws in both English and German. That request was not honored but that did not seem to discourage the German tongue. In the late 1700s, up until 1854, there were at least five printers in the Shenandoah Valley cranking out publications in German (and in those days, they really did crank them out). The German language newspaper founded in New Market in 1806 (or maybe 1807) was published by Ambrose Henkel, a fifth-generation German speaker. As late as 1938 a printer in Dayton in Rockingham County was still producing hymnals in German, about two centuries after the initial German settlement in the Shenandoah Valley.

This was no localized phenomenon, either. In 1817, you “heard nothing but German” spoken in Lancaster County, one politician recorded. In 1828, Pennsylvania almost declared German an official language; the measure failed by a single vote. In 1839, Ohio and Pennsylvania allowed school instruction in German – even requiring it if parents insisted. St. Louis in the 1860s, ’70s and ’80s operated bilingual schools. German was so prevalent in parts of the Midwest that it inspired the inevitable English-only backlash, with Wisconsin mandating that some school subjects be taught only in English. New York in the early 1900s had at least a dozen German-language newspapers.

The patriotic fervor surrounding World War I silenced the German language in the United States. At least 14 states banned teaching German. In Virginia, one of the main thoroughfares in Harrisonburg’s business district was renamed from German Street to Liberty Street. Today, Virginia’s German heritage is sometimes merely background noise in the form of place names, from Germanna Community College to Hershberger Road in Roanoke.

I bring up all this history as instructive background for today’s look at a recent report prepared by the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University for the state’s Office of New Americans and the Virginia Department of Social Services on the state’s immigrant population. Yesterday, I dealt with some of the big headlines out of the report – the growth of the state’s immigrant population and how it’s unevenly distributed across Virginia. Today I’ll delve into the language part of the report, keeping in mind that language is often the touchiest part of immigration.

The number that may matter first: 16.8% of Virginians speak a language other than English at home.

For context, that’s lower than the national average, which is 22%.

As with everything about immigration, the distribution here is quite uneven. California has the nation’s highest percentage of “language other than English spoken at home” with 44.5%. West Virginia has the lowest, at 2.6%.

If Virginia’s number feels high to you, it’s likely because Virginia – like the rest of the South – has largely been bypassed by immigration in the past. For instance, in 1890, when immigration in the United States was at its height (with a record 14.8% of the population being foreign-born), the immigrant population in Virginia was just 1.1%. By 1910, when immigration was at its second-highest level ever nationally (14.7%), Virginia’s foreign-born population was still just 1.3%. (For what it’s worth, the biggest source of immigrants in Virginia then was Russia.) Now Virginia is much more like the nation as a whole – at least parts of Virginia (mostly Northern Virginia and some pockets elsewhere around the state).

The point to keep in mind as I present the numbers below: None of this is new. These are all things the United States has experienced in the past; they just haven’t been experienced by us.

In raw numbers, that 16.8% of Virginians who speak a language other than English at home is 1,352,586 people.

Of those, 616,226 speak Spanish. That’s 45.5% of the total number of those not speaking English at home, or 7.1% of Virginia’s population. Here’s another way to visualize it: That’s more people than live in all of Loudoun County. If these people constituted their own locality, they’d be the second most populous locality in Virginia, behind only Fairfax County.

The second biggest language other than English spoken at home is Chinese – 66,186, or 4.8% of the total number of those not speaking English at home, or less than 0.7% of Virginia’s population. Or, if you prefer, that 66,186 is more people than there are in all of Pittsylvania County.

Third is Vietnamese with 57,496.

Fourth is Arabic at 56,632. Both of those populations are slightly more than in all of Franklin County or Washington County.

In fifth place is Korean at 48,255, or more than the entire population of Danville.

There’s some perspective for you. Here’s some more:

Languages spoken in schools across Virginia. Source: L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, VCU.

The study finds that among students in the Fairfax County school system, 139 languages other than English are spoken. In Loudoun County, 114. In Prince William County, 108. Not surprisingly, there is much disparity here. Highland County records no students who aren’t speaking English at home.

Across Southwest and Southside, many counties report that some of their students speak a language other than English at home – but the numbers are often in single digits. Wythe County, for instance, reports just two students in all. Lee County just three students. Bath County and Scott County four. By contrast, Manassas, Manassas Park, Harrisonburg and Alexandria all have more than 30% of their students speaking a language other than English at home. It seems difficult for much of Southwest and Southside to comprehend the challenges facing some of these other school systems.

In Fairfax County, the system with the most languages spoken, 65% of those students who are speaking something other than English at home are speaking Spanish, followed by Arabic at 6.3%, Vietnamese at 3.1% and on down in percentages from there.

The most linguistically diverse school system in the western third of Virginia is Roanoke, with 46 languages. Of those who aren’t speaking English at home, 69.4% are speaking Spanish, followed by Dari at 5.4%, Nepali at 2.9%, Haitian Creole at 2.4% and Arabic at 2.0%.

The second most linguistically diverse is Roanoke County with 37 languages. Of those students not speaking English at home, the breakdown is Spanish 55%, Arabic 13%, Vietnamese 7.4%, Chinese 3.2% and Farsi at 2.4%.

The third most linguistically diverse is Montgomery County with 34 languages. Of those students not speaking English at home, the breakdown is Spanish 53%, Arabic 20.9%, Chinese 6.4%, Korea 2.7% and Portuguese 1.8%.

Yet next door is Giles County, which has only seven students in the whole county speaking something other than English.

The top 15 localities where students speak a language other than English Source: L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, VCU.

The next logical question might be how well do some of these immigrants speak English. This report addresses that.

Out of those 1,352,586 Virginians speaking a language other than English at home, the report says that approximately 488,000 can be considered “limited English proficient.” Based on the total number of immigrants, that means 48.8% of the immigrant population is “limited English proficient.” It’s difficult to make historical comparisons here. The U.S. Census Bureau found that in 1910 some 22.8% of the foreign-born population was “unable to speak English.” There’s a difference, though, between being “unable to speak English” and being “limited English proficient.” We don’t know how many immigrants today can’t speak English and we don’t know how many in 1910 were “limited English proficient.”

What we do know is that immigrants today learn English more quickly than previous generations did. There were no English as a Second Language classes in 1910. We need only look to the Shenandoah Valley – where German was spoken for multiple generations. 

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.