Study debunks myth that early immigrants quickly learned English

Wayne E. Wright wayneewright at
Tue Oct 28 11:43:18 UTC 2008

Does anyone know where this research has been published?


Sent from my iPod

On Oct 25, 2008, at 3:54 PM, "Harold Schiffman" <haroldfs at> wrote:

Forwarded From: LINGANTH at


Study debunks myth that early immigrants quickly learned English

The Capital Times  —  10/18/2008 3:37 pm

Joseph Salmons has always been struck by a frequent argument in
letters to the editor, national debates and in just plain old

"My great, great grandparents came to America and quickly learned
English to survive. Why can't today's immigrants do the same?"

With "English-only" movements cropping up and debate growing about how
quickly new Spanish-speaking immigrants should learn English, the
University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of German decided the issue
was important enough to look more deeply into the past.

Salmons and recent UW-Madison German Ph.D. graduate Miranda Wilkerson
delved into census data, newspapers, books, court records and other
materials to help document the linguistic experience of German
immigrants in Wisconsin from 1839 to the 1930s. Their paper appears in
the current issue of the journal American Speech.

Focusing on German immigrants was a logical choice, Salmons said,
since they represented the biggest immigration wave to Wisconsin in
the mid-1800s, "and they really fit this classic view of the 'good old
immigrants' of the 19th century."

What Salmons and Wilkerson found was a remarkable reversal of
conventional wisdom: Not only did many early immigrants not feel
compelled out of practicality to learn English quickly upon arriving
in America, they appeared to live and thrive for decades while
speaking exclusively German.

In many of the original German settlements in the mid-1800s from
southeastern Wisconsin to Lake Winnebago and the Fox Valley, the
researchers found that German remained the primary language of
commerce, education and religion well into the early 20th century.
Some second- and even third-generation German immigrants who were born
in Wisconsin still spoke only German as adults.

"These folks were committed Americans," said Salmons. "They
participated in politics, in the economy, and were leaders in their
churches and their schools. They just happened not to conduct much of
their life in English."

One of the richest sources for the study came from the 1910 U.S.
Census, which is digitized and available through the Wisconsin
Historical Society. Wilkerson analyzed self-reports on the languages
adults spoke in areas of heavy German settlement, which included nine
townships in seven counties in southeastern and central Wisconsin.

Examples include Hustisford in Dodge County; Hamburg in Marathon
County; Kiel in Manitowoc County; Germantown in Washington County; and
Belgium in Ozaukee County.

The researchers found that in 1910, there were still robust
populations of German-only speakers in those communities. The census
identified 24 percent German-only speakers in Hustisford, 22 percent
in Schleswig (Manitowoc County), 21 percent in Hamburg and 18 percent
in Kiel.

These numbers did not only represent first-generation immigrants, but
included many born in the United States. Of the self-reported
German-only speakers in the census, 43 percent from Germantown were
born in the United States, followed by 36 percent in Schleswig, 35
percent in Hustisford and 34 percent in Brothertown (Calumet County).

"What this means for the learning (or non-learning) of English here is
telling: after 50 or more years of living in the United States, many
speakers in some communities remained monolingual," the authors wrote.
"This finding provides striking counterevidence to the claim that
early immigrants learned English quickly."

Salmons pointed to other straightforward evidence of how viable the
German language remained in Wisconsin. Through state history, there
were more than 500 German-language newspapers published in Wisconsin.
Those small-town papers often consolidated into larger-circulation
papers in the 20th century and remained commercially available into
the 1940s.

They also found, surprisingly, that people in contact with the Germans
learned to speak German as well. In Ozaukee County, for instance,
there was evidence that Irish families who lived scattered among
Germans could speak German.

Another finding was that German-only speakers found work as teachers,
clergymen, merchants, blacksmiths, tailors and surveyors, in addition
to farmers and laborers.

"The key issue seemed to be whether they had a big enough
German-speaking community, where they had a critical mass for people
to be comfortable being monolingual," Salmons said. "There was no huge
pressure to change in those communities."

According to Salmons, the study suggests that conventional wisdom may
actually have it backwards -- while early immigrants didn't
necessarily need English to succeed and responded slowly, modern
immigrants recognize it as a ticket to success and are learning
English in faster than was done in the olden days.


Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of 
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture 
Dept. of South Asia Studies                     
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138                                      

Email:  haroldfs at    

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