Study debunks myth that early immigrants quickly learned English

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Oct 28 21:40:39 UTC 2008

I might add that there were significant cultural resources that
German-Americans relied
on to maintain the language. Besides the newspapers, many churches
used German on
a regular basis, and those church denominations (Missouri Lutherans,
Evangelische Synode
des Westens, etc.) supported schools that taught in German until the
anti-German laws
and regulations of World War I closed them down.

Anecdotally, I can affirm that my German-born great-grandmother never,
according to my
mother, learned English, and because of that, my mother received
support for her own
bilingualism.  There is  a lot of other research on this issue "out
there": one example, my own
study of the transition from German to English in the GErman-American churches:

`Language Maintenance in the German-American church.' (A shorter
version of this paper has been published as ``Losing the Battle for
Balanced Bilingualism: The German-American Case." in J. Pool (ed.),
Linguistic Inequality. Special Issue of Language Problems and Language
Planning (Vol 11, No. 1, Spring, 1987). pp. 66-81.)

Sadly, a lot of the documentation for these issues is being lost--the
newspapers are now longer archived
in a way that will preserve them, and they are not being microfilmed
and/or preserved electronically the
way other historically-important American newspapers are.  It's as if
this view of American life is not

Hal Schiffman

On Tue, Oct 28, 2008 at 9:16 AM, Carol Costello
<cacostello at> wrote:
> Dr. Wright,
> Looks like it is in "American Speech"--another angle is to look at how long
> it takes to learn English from German or from a Spanish base.  My own
> experience going the other way with both languages is that German, because
> of the inflections related to the three genders, takes 2x as long as
> Spanish.
> Carol
> ----- Original Message ----
> From: Wayne E. Wright <wayneewright at>
> To: "lgpolicy-list at" <lgpolicy-list at>
> Cc: lp <lgpolicy-list at>
> Sent: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 6:43:18 AM
> Subject: Re: Study debunks myth that early immigrants quickly learned
> English
> Does anyone know where this research has been published?
> -Wayne
> 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
> conversations:
> "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
> -------------------------------------------------


 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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