Polyglot Washington: Language Needs and Abilities in the Nation’s Capital

Audrey Singer and Jill H. Wilson
Jill H. Wilson Former Senior Research Analyst & Associate Fellow - Metropolitan Policy Program

June 1, 2004


An analysis of language use and English-speaking ability in the Washington metropolitan area reveals that:

  • Twenty-one percent of the Washington metropolitan region’s population communicates in non-English languages at home, while in the District 17 percent of residents report speaking a language other than English at home. Regionwide, more than 100 languages are spoken.

  • In the Washington metropolitan area, the “limited English proficient” (LEP) population increased by nearly 80 percent between 1990 and 2000. In total, the proportion of residents considered to have limited English speaking skills increased from 6 percent to 9 percent in the region and from 5 percent to 7 percent in the District alone.

  • The region’s LEP population is concentrated in inner-suburban areas both inside and outside the beltway as well as in the central corridor of the District of Columbia. The inner suburban counties of Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria, and Montgomery have much higher LEP proportions than the metropolitan average.

  • More than half of the Washington metropolitan area’s limited English proficient population is Spanish speaking, while fully two-thirds of the District of Columbia’s LEP population is Spanish speaking. By contrast, 25 percent of the region’s LEP population, but only 12 percent of the District’s LEP population, speak Asian languages.

  • In the Washington region, 43 percent of the foreign-born population is limited English proficient, compared to less than 2 percent of the U.S.-born population. However, about 15 percent of the total limited English proficient population in the region was born in the United States, and this number is higher in the District, where 21 percent of the limited English speakers are native born.

While the proportion of limited English proficient speakers among all persons in the region seems small, the pace of growth is quite fast and its size in some localities is large. Service providers, including local governments, need to continue to focus their efforts on how to serve this population.