ECONOMIST Johnson Language Feb 7th 2013, 2:19 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK
THE debate around immigration in America often touches on language. The fear of nativist Americans is that immigrants do not learn (and maybe do not want to learn) English. If many of them speak the same language (say, Spanish) and cluster geographically (in, say, Los Angeles or San Antonio) they threaten to make America de facto bilingual. If this happens, so goes the concern, they will inevitably make demands for more legal recognition of other languages, threatening English's status as a unifying force behind America's motto, e pluribus unum, "out of many, one".
Americans know that this is an immigrant country. So why, in this narrative, did previous waves of immigration not threaten English, while today's does? In the traditional story, immigrants back in the good old days wanted to, and did in fact, learn English. But this is not really so.
Immigrant languages probably persisted longer in America a century ago than they do today. And one language in particular persisted in large, coherent pockets in America for more than half a century: German. German immigration to America peaked from around 1840 to 1880. Like most immigrants, Germans came to towns where their co-nationals had settled, so they built up big communities in cities like Milwaukee, Cincinnati and St. Louis.
So what did this immigrant community look like? Hard-working English learners who quickly dissolved in the great melting pot? Hardly. This fascinating short paper by Miranda Wilkerson and Joseph Salmons looks at just one town in southeastern Wisconsin, called Hustisford. They focus on the year 1910; German-speaking plunged fairly quickly in America after the first world war (1914-1918), for the obvious reasons. But before the war, German monolingual communities persisted for many decades after immigrants' arrivals.
Almost a quarter of Hustisford's population (over ten years old) was monolingual in German in 1910. Of that share, a third were born in America. Of the German monolinguals born abroad, a majority had been in America for more than 30 years, having immigrated during the height of the German wave. In other words, in small-town America a century ago, it was perfectly possible to grow up, or to live there for decades after immigrating, without learning English.
Was this because Germans were isolated, in pockets in town or perhaps on the outskirts? No; Ms Wilkerson and Mr Salmons' map shows them interspersed among Anglo-Americans. Were they simply undissolved lumps in an Anglo-American pot, though? No again: the scholars find many mixed households, and English and Irish names among the parishioners at German churches. Perhaps the Germans still felt somehow really German, not American? Here, the story is nuanced; German-Americans were certainly proud of their German heritage, but a 1917 cover of Die Deutsche Hausfrau, a ladies' magazine, featured prominent flags and the lyrics to the "Star-Spangled Banner"—in German translation. This was just before America's entry into the war.
German was the single biggest and most concentrated foreign language on American soil after independence—until today. Almost five decades of immigration from Spanish-speaking countries has recreated something like the German situation. Some people, like the late Samuel Huntington, a political scientist, feel that America's "Anglo-American core" is threatened like never before. But for many reasons (hard to rank in importance), it is nearly impossible today to grow up in America without learning English. One study of more than 5,000 children in the Miami and San Diego areas (thick with Spanish-speakers) found that 94.7% of Latino middle-schoolers who had been born in America spoke English well. The authors concluded that "knowledge of English is near universal, and preference for that language is dominant among most immigrant nationalities. On the other hand, only a minority remain fluent in the parental languages."
As with most stories of "the good old days", the stories of the "good old immigrants" who learned English in contrast to today's layabouts are just that: stories. Their point is emotional, not educational. The purpose is to elicit fear of change, through reminiscence for an age that never existed.
(Wilkerson-Salmons paper via Mr. Verb. The headline is "Proud to be an American" in German. I'd quite like to see Lee Greenwood sing it in German.)
MKE_Hornet Feb 8th 2013, 15:42
As a native Milwaukeean and German-American myself, I can certainly vouch for the persistence of German culture and language even to this day in a city that used to be called the "Deutsch-Athen". It's considered quite the gig to play a show at Turner Hall downtown, and there are monuments not far from the Germania building to the Iron Brigadiers of the Civil War, many of whom could hardly speak English beyond announcing proudly that "they were going to fight mit Sigel!" (General Franz Sigel). Frankly I don't think current nativist nonsense directed at Hispanic Americans and Arab Americans holds much more water than the kind that said America would be overwhelmed by socialist Germans 100 years ago.
Michael Watsonin reply to Ingenieurwissenschaftler Feb 8th 2013, 02:17
Lieber Ingenieur, Isn't it extraordinary what nonsense and ignorance is so often expressed in so many of these comments in The Economist? Most Americans fail to realise that citizens of acknowledged German ancestry are the largest, measurable group in the US at about 50 million, i.e. more than Irish or African-American. (I understand that it is problematic to determine the number of citizens of English ancestry since they have been there so long that they consider themselves 'indigenous'.) It is in official records that significant numbers of Germans began arriving in America from 1670 onwards, initially mainly in New York and Pennsylvania (the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch were not Dutch but Deutsch, i.e., German). They brought with them the traditions of the Christmas tree, the hot dog and the hamburger. There are innumerable famous US citizens of German ancestry, e.g. Herbert Hoover, Albert Einstein, President Eisenhower, John Steinbeck, Meryl Streep, etc. What seems not to be realized by a great number of Americans is that there is no official language in the US - English is simply its de facto language. Today, Illinois State publishes a driver's manual in German just as Cincinnati does in Ohio. I mention these facts to counteract the absurd xenophobia concerning citizens, or potential citizens, whose mother tongue is Spanish.
The pattern is always pretty much the same, especially since radio and talkies and TV and the Internet came along to homogenize and distribute the language everywhere. The first people, who came here as adults, will almost never be fluent. Their children are truly bi-lingual. The next generation is monolingual, and the only words you can be sure they know in the old language are foods and swears.