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The History of Language in Washington State

Washington is an extraordinary epicenter of corporate wealth and cutting-edge technology. The Evergreen State is the birthplace for several Silicon Valley giants, including Microsoft, Amazon, Zillow, and Expedia. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Apple have also selected the coastal region for their engineering home base.

Washington has become a vibrant, multicultural area in the country. The state attracts computer programmers, researchers, and visionaries from around the world. Wallet Hub ranked it as the 19th most diverse regions in the nation. USA Today has also named it as one of the best states to live in America.

How did Washington's cultural diversity evolve over the years? In this article, you'll learn about the state's cultural history.

Language Network - The History of Language in Washington State (edit)


Languages Spoken in Washington State

According to the American Immigration Council, Washington has the second-highest food production in the nation. It relies on its expanding immigrant population to complete these difficult jobs. One in seven Washington residents is foreign-born. These include half of the state's farmers, fishers, and foresters.  In 2015, immigrants comprised 13.7 of Washington's population.

The top countries of origin for immigrants were Mexico (24.2 percent), the Philippines (7.4 percent), India (6.7 percent), China (6.1 percent), and Vietnam (4.2 percent). Thirteen percent of native-born Washingtonians had at least one immigrant parent.

In October 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau released its 2009-2013 American Community Survey. The comprehensive survey documented different languages spoken in American homes and traces people's ability to speak English within five years. During their 2010 Census, the federal agency estimated that Washington had 6,378,045 residents. In 2018, the state's population ballooned to 7,288,000 residents.

The American Community Survey determined that 5,195,196 English-speaking households. One million residents lived non-English-speaking homes. Here are the top languages immigrant speakers used.

  • English - 5,195,196
  • Spanish and Spanish Creole - 521,751
  • Chinese Languages (Cantonese, Mandarin, etc;) - 81,650
  • Vietnamese - 60,094
  • Russian - 56,537
  • Tagalog - 54,878
  • Korean - 48,065
  • African Languages - 40,932
  • German - 32,474
  • Pacific Island Languages - 28,213

According to the Office of Financial Management, 19.6 percent of Washingtonians (5 years and older) live in a household where a language other than English is spoken.


English Language Learners in Washington State

Washington's population has become more diverse in recent years. In 1979, the state passed Senate Bill 2149. This bill helped fund the Transitional Bilingual Instruction Program (TBIP). The state agency provides an equal education to children who come from non-English-speaking households.

According to a Seattle Times story, 10 percent of Washington's public school students are English Language Learners (ELL). Most are elementary school children.

Almost 53 percent are in the third grade or younger. Officials determined that 130,000 students were eligible for the state's Transitional Bilingual Instructional Program. This group spoke a combined 220 languages, although 65 percent of the students were Spanish speakers.

The next nine languages with the most speakers were Russian, Vietnamese, Somali, Arabic, Ukrainian, Tagalog, Marshallese, Korean, and Punjabi.


Washington's Native Americans Population

Archaeologists believe that Washington State was one of the first populated regions in North America. Native Americans were the initial inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest region. They were descendants of people who crossed a land bridge linking North American and Northeastern Asia almost 11,500 years ago.

According to anthropological evidence, more than 125 Northwest tribes lived along the shores of Puget Sound before Europeans settlers arrived. Washington State's Native American population belonged to two different regional groups. The first lived near the Pacific Coast, west of the Cascade Region.

Indigenous tribes that lived along the coastal areas include the Chinook, Lummi, Makah, and Snohomish. The second belonged to the Columbia Plateau, east of the range. Eastern Plateau area tribes included the Klickitat, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Okanogan, Palouse, Spokane, and Yakama.

Indigenous Americans collectively spoke 50 different languages and dialects. Most contributed to names within the area. Today, Native Americans comprise 1.9 percent of the state's population, according to the U.S. Census. Several state areas still kept Native American names. These include Spokane, Cheney, East Wenatchee, Enumclaw, Yakima Valley, and Walla Walla.



European and Central American Explorers in Washington

English explorer Sir Francis Drake sailed along the Oregon region in the late 16th Century. He traveled along the Washington coast in 1579. Drake called the land New Albion and claimed it for England's Queen Elizabeth. It was one of several Pacific Northwest regions that the British claimed. Drake claimed to sail as far north as 48 degrees north latitude. The area is due west of Everett, Washington. In 1774, Spaniard Juan Perez was the first European explorer to land in present-day Washington.

The following year, Spanish explorers Bruno Heceta and Bodega y Quadra arrived at Pont Grenville, near the Olympic Peninsula. It was the first time that Europeans landed on Washington soil. Both captains erected a cross, then buried a wax-sealed bottle containing documents that claimed the land for Spain.

Mexicans served as crewmembers during these expeditions. These Latino pioneers produced the first topography and scientific studies of the region.

Jose Mariano Mozino produced an ecological catalog of 200 plant and animal species during the Malaspina Expedition. Artist Anastasio Echeverria sketched detailed landscape profiles.

Britain and Spain signed the Nootka Conventions in 1790, which ended Spain's exclusive hold on the Northwestern Coast. This treaty allowed the United States, Russia, and Britain to settle an area between California and Alaska. It also gave them the ability to trade. At the dawn of the 19th Century, settlers began hunting beavers and other land animals.

Two years later, British naval officer George Vancouver explored the Puget Sound area. Explorer Robert Gray discovered the Columbia River in 1792. Canadian explorer David Thompson explored the river in 1807 and became the first European to travel its whole length. He claimed the area for the British. Later, settlers established the Fort Nez Perce trading post in Walla Walla, Washington.


American and European Settlers

Spain gave up its territorial rights north of the 42nd Parallel to the United States when it signed the Adams-Onis Treaty. In 1824, Russia also gave up a land claims south of the 54-40 latitude. Britain later ceded its property rights below the 49th Parallel in 1846.

More settlers proceeded west after the U.S. government claimed the area. They traveled along the Oregon Trail and settled in the Puget Sound area at Fort Nisqually (west of Washington).

The area's settlements had different missions. Eastern Washington territories had a flourishing, agricultural-based economy.  Walla Walla Valley settlements focused on missionary work to "civilize" Native Americans in the area. Rising tensions rose between the groups. Cayuse and Umatilla Indians killed thirteen missionaries who refused to leave. These conflicts ignited the Cayuse War, followed by the Yakima War. Eventually, the U.S. government defeated the Cayuse and Umatilla at the Battle of the Four Lakes. The tribes gave up their land, and the government placed them in reservations. 

After the creation of the Oregon Territory in 1848, settlers north of the Columbia River began to demand a separate territory. People living north of Columbia River resented the distance between themselves and Salem, the Oregon Territorial capital.

On February 8, 1853, a federal bill was introduced to separate Columbia Territory from Oregon. Officials amended the legislation to rename the area, Washington Territory. It had fewer than 4,000 residents after it separated from Oregon.

President Millard Fillmore signed the bill in 1853. President Grover Cleveland signed an act to create the state of Washington on February 22, 1889. It entered the union on November 11.

During the nineteenth and early 20th century, millions of European immigrants began traveling toward the Pacific Northwest.

These migrants sought cheaper land and better economic opportunities. Others wanted religious freedom. Railroad companies, who needed laborers, encouraged this migration. Most European settlers came from Scandinavia and Germany.

Today, their descendants continue to live in Washington.


The History of Mexican Immigrants in Washington

Mexican immigrants greatly contributed to Washington's economy before it gained statehood. During the early 1800s, the area had two economies: fur trapping and mining. The Washington territory didn't have a commercial transportation system before the 1870s. 

Walla Walla had a large Mexican population during the late 19th Century. They provided the first dependable means of commercial transportation for miners and their products. Mexican Mule Packers also helped the voluntary U.S. regiment to win the Rogue River War that took place in 1855-1856. After the victory, they were in high demand throughout the Northwest until the creation of the railroads later.

Latinos never permanently settled in Washington in large numbers in the 19th Century. During the political turmoil of the Mexican Revolution (from 1910 - 1917), many Latinos began to immigrate to the United States. Some settled in Washington after the state developed an agricultural economy. Mexican labor was in high demand at this time.

The World War II period increased Latino settlements in Washington. The U.S. government sent Japanese Americans, who contributed greatly to Yakima Valley's agricultural regions, to internment camps. This development sent the area into a crisis. The state developed a solution called the Bracero program. They hired contracted Mexican workers for agriculture, and later the railroad industry from 1942-47. The program officially lasted until 1964.

The Civil Rights movement in the South eventually reached Washington by 1968.  Latino youth, influenced by the Southern California farm movement, decided to form the United Mexican American Students. UMAS later joined with the Chicano Movement and became Mecha (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan). They participated in several wildcat strikes supporting Latino farmworkers.

During the mid-1960s, the state's Latino population changed. Many Chicanos left the migrant farm circuit in the 1970s. The 1965 Immigration Act eliminated racial quotas in the U.S. immigration system and led to an increase of Mexican immigrants in the state. During the late 20th century, a great influx of Latino immigrants came to the area.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, Washington has more than 237,000 immigrants from Mexico. Many moved to urban areas like King County, which had a 6.5 percent Hispanic population by 2004.  Almost 51.3 percent of Adams, Yakima, Chelan, Douglas, Grant, Walla Walla, and Franklin County households speak Spanish.


The History of Chinese Immigrants in Washington

Chinese immigrants were the first Asians to settle in the Washington area. Many settled in Seattle after arriving in San Francisco during the 1860s. Most came from the Guangzhou (Canton) province. These migrants worked as fishermen, loggers, domestic help, and cannery or mill workers. They also helped construct railroads and buildings.

Washington companies initially welcomed Chinese workers due to a shortage of workers. Later, new white settlers began to resent their presence in Washington and other Pacific Northwest states.

These ongoing conflicts led to the passage of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1862. It prohibited all immigration of Chinese citizens. Racial tensions increased in Washington during the 1880s. White workers believed that Chinese workers were taking their jobs.

The volatile situation exploded when white workers rioted during the Seattle Riots of 1866. Government officials expelled almost 350 Chinese men. Others left voluntarily. Additional riots occurred in Tacoma in 1885, and another attack on Squak Valley Chinese laborers that same year. President Grover Cleveland ordered federal military forces to restore order in the Washington territory.

Chinese workers eventually settled along the eastern edge of Pioneer Square, located in the 2nd Avenue Extension. A new Chinatown started in the early 1900s. Wa Chong Co. was Seattle's first Asian-owner manufacturing business. Japanese and Filipino residents also lived there.

In the 1930s, Chinese Americans joined forces with Japanese and Filipino Americans to fight a ban on interracial marriages. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, the group opposed discriminatory practices such as restrictive housing and racial preferences in hiring. Today, the descendants from the state's original Chinese immigrants still live in the area. Almost 81,650 Washington residents speak Chinese languages in their homes. Chinese and other Asian ethnicities are the fastest-growing in Washington according to the 2010 U.S. Census Data.


Japanese-Americans in Washington State

The Japanese-American community settled into Seattle, Wash., during three periods. The first was the frontier period from the 1800s to the early 1900s. Some single Japanese men settled in the area to amass wealth before returning home. These workers were in high demand due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This generation was known as Issei. Most immigrants worked in canneries, railroads, and logging. Many had very little economic support and faced considerable racism. They couldn't purchase homes in West Seattle and other areas.

Japanese Americans eventually established a Nihonmachi, or Japanese town, in the International District of Seattle by the 1900s. It became the heart of the Japanese community and featured bathhouses, barbers, entertainment, and gambling. The Seattle Japanese Language School (Nipponjinkai Juzoku Shogakko) was the first one of its kind in America. The second generation of Japanese immigrants was known as Nisei. They planned to return to their country after a few years but began to see themselves as settlers.  By the 1930s, their population rose to 8,448 (out of 368,583 Washington residents).  At that time, they were the largest non-white group to live in the area.  Businessmen tried to prevent them from migrating to the state.

By the 1930s, Japanese-owned farms grew 75 percent of the produce in the Seattle area. After the Pearl Harbor Attack, the U.S. government sent the city's Japanese population to concentration camps in Puyallup, Wash. An additional 7,000 Japanese-Americans ended up at Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, while others traveled to different camps. Many people lost their businesses and homes. The University of Washington also forced nearly 450 Japanese-American students to leave campus.

During the final period, some Japanese-American residents and migrants returned to the area after World War II. Today, 25, 418 Washingtonians speak Japanese in their homes.


Asian Indians in Washington State

The U.S. Census Bureau uses the term "Asian Indian" to describe people who come from India. More than 2,061,000 Asian Indians have immigrated to the United States, according to the Migrant Policy Institute. Almost 69,000 Asian Indians in Washington State. The Census Bureau found that most Asian Indians lived in two counties. King County has 52,900 Asian Indians, the highest population in the state. Snohomish County has the second-largest number at 7,900.


Washington State Needs More Interpreters

The state's population has become more diverse in recent years. Many governments, corporations, and schools need to skilled professionals to help them serve different clients. The Language Exchange has trained linguists and interpreters that can provide accurate translations for your school or business.  Our interpretation services include legal, medical, educational, and technical services. Contact us at 360-755-9910 to request a quote.


Unlinked Sources

  • https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/indian-immigrants-united-states-4
  • https://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/immigrant-and-emigrant-populations-country-origin-and-destination
  • https://names.mongabay.com/languages/states/Washington.html
  • https://ofm.wa.gov/washington-data-research/statewide-data/washington-trends/social-economic-conditions/language-spoken-home/languages-spoken-home-mapped-county

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