Study debunks myth that early immigrants quickly learned English
"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.