Since 1870, Many Languages Spoken Here

The second of a series
by Paul Neufeld Weaver, May 24, 2003

WORTHINGTON - Steve Insixiengmay is learning his fourth language. Forced to flee his native Laos, Steve has lived in 10 cities in four countries. Along the way, he has learned to speak Thai and English in addition to his native Lao. Now, living in Worthington for the past 10 years and working alongside Latino immigrants, Steve is picking up Spanish.

Steve joins many multilingual people who live in Nobles County. About 45 of the world's 6,800 languages are spoken here today (see chart). This includes 12 European, eight Asian, 11 Latin American, and nine African and five Middle Eastern Languages.

Of the county's nearly 21,000 people, about 16,500 speak only English, about 2,000 speak Spanish and nearly 500 speak Lao. The fourth language reported in the 2000 census was German, with 181 speakers, mostly elderly immigrants and children of immigrants. The other languages listed in the chart are spoken by smaller numbers of people.

While the languages spoken in Nobles County represent less than one percent of the world's languages, they include 15 of the 28 most spoken languages of the world, representing every major continent. The world really has come to Worthington.

While the racial diversity of Worthington and its surrounding communities has increased in the last twenty years, ethnic and linguistic diversity has been a hallmark of life here for a long time.

Before 1850, this area was called "Sisseton Country" after the local group of Lakota who lived and hunted in this area. Between 1867 and June 1870, 117 white people settled here, of whom nine were German and the rest were from other states in the US. With the arrival of these newcomers, the primary language of the area changed from Lakota to English.

By 1900 the 15,000 county residents were mostly immigrant families who spoke more than a dozen languages, including English, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Danish, French, Bohemian, Welsh, Italian and

The number of people speaking languages other than English continued to grow until the 1920s when immigration was severely restricted. Even then, it was common to hear other languages in churches and homes into
the 1940s.

The first Spanish-speakers came to Nobles County in the 1920s. By 1930 several hundred Mexicans lived here as temporary workers. By 1970, though, nearly all county residents spoke English, with less than ten percent still speaking the European languages of their parents.

Immigration picked up again in the 1970s, after restrictions were eased in 1965. First came refugees fleeing post-war
persecution in Southeast Asia, along with some Spanish-speaking workers and families from Mexico and the US Southwest. By the 1990s, hundreds of people were arriving every year from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, along with a continuing trickle from Europe.

The need of government, schools, and businesses to accommodate linguistic diversity is not new. Joe Amato, in his book, To Call it Home, reports that when Minnesota was founded in 1858, the constitution was published in a number of immigrant languages so that newcomers could understand the system they were becoming a part of. And in 1896, the instructions for the election ballot in Minnesota were printed in nine different languages.

Today, local residents can find drivers license manuals in Spanish, and many agencies, businesses and schools have translated informational brochures. Swift & Co., the employer of most recent immigrants, publishes its newsletter in English, Spanish, Lao, and Amharic. School District 518 routinely sends home information in English, Spanish, and Lao, and the Worthington Daily Globe publishes a bi-weekly Daily Globe en Español.

However, today, as it was a hundred years ago, much information is still inaccessible for those who have yet to go through the long process of acquiring a working understanding of English.

During both waves of immigration, immigrants recognized the importance of learning English, while finding comfort in continuing to be able to use their native tongue. For recent immigrants, as for the earlier European immigrants, the process of switching to English is a long and difficult one.

Interviews with Nobles County residents show that among those who arrived here between 1870 and 1920, some never learned to speak English well, despite living here for 30, 40 or 50 years. This is a challenge newcomers can definitely understand, since in the 2000 Census 1,747 people reported that they speak English less than "very well."

These recent immigrants join long-time residents in being able to take advantage of many public services that weren't available one hundred years ago. Free English classes and interpreters at local clinics and agencies are among the services available to language learners.

During both waves, for most adult immigrants English was always a second language. The children of immigrants were usually bilingual and the third generation generally completed the transition to English as a primary language.

Churches have long been an important place for expression of ethnic and linguistic identity. Many local churches began as ethnic congregations with worship conducted in various languages. First Lutheran, Indian Lake Baptist and First Covenant all had services in Swedish. St. Matthews Lutheran and Emanuel United Methodist, among others, had services in German. The Christian Reformed Chruch had services in Dutch. Several churches continued to have German, Swedish, or Dutch services until the 1940s, 70 years after the founding of Worthington.

Today there are more than half a dozen congregations in Nobles County that worship in Spanish, Lao, or Vietnamese, continuing the long tradition of multilingual worship in communities here.

Nobles County has been known for promoting cross-cultural cooperation and reconciliation from the beginning. Founded by men who were veterans of a bloody and divisive civil war, the county has welcomed people of nearly 100 nationalities in its history. Some were seeking freedom from oppression, others economic opportunity.

Worthington led our nation in making peace in the early 1900's and in the 1940s. Shortly after the long, brutal conflict of World War II, Worthington was among the first cities in the nation to reach out and embrace their former enemies in Germany. The aid given to help rebuild the crumbling City of Crailsheim has led to a lasting international, cross-cultural friendship.

Worthington resident Paul Neufeld Weaver was a research fellow at the Center for Rural and Regional Studies at Southwest Minnesota State University. You can contact Weaver at

Weaver held a talk about Immigration in Worthington at a public forum held at 7 pm, Thursday, May 29, 2003 at the Nobles County Integration Collaborative in the former West Elementary School, corner of Turner and Clary in Worthington. The forum was sponsored by the Collaborative, the Nobles County Historical Society and the Center for Rural and Regional Studies.

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Last updated: March 21, 2006