Study rebuts perceptions of migrants' English use
Dec. 9, 2008
Immigrants in 1800s avoided new language
Daniel González -
Dec. 9, 2008 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
resident Guadalupe Garcia has lived in the United States for nearly 35 years,
but she still doesn't speak English well.
The 65-year-old seamstress from
spoke only Spanish at home to her children and held jobs where she didn't need
It's people such as her who fuel perceptions that recent waves of
Spanish-speaking immigrants, unlike earlier waves of immigrants, are reluctant
to learn English.
But new research turns that assumption on its head.
Joseph Salmons, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has done a
study that indicates that many German immigrants who arrived in the 1800s didn't
learn English and that their children and grandchildren often didn't learn
English, either. The findings probably apply to other waves of immigrant groups
of the late 1800s and early 1900s, Salmons said.
Other research shows that Latino immigrants in more recent decades are learning
English quickly and that, by the third generation, speak only English.
"A lot of the stereotypes apply much better to German immigrants of the 19th
century than they do to the Mexican immigrants in the Southwest today," said
The research is particularly relevant in states like Arizona, where a surge of
Spanish speakers has spurred a backlash in the form of ballot measures banning
bilingual education and declaring English the state's official language.
Salmons said his research shows the public need not worry about an erosion of
"People should turn down the level of panic," Salmons said. "The English issue
will resolve itself."
Pearce, R-Mesa, doubts the validity of Salmons' study.
"I think it's a fabrication," he said.
Pearce was the main backer of Proposition 103, which voters approved in 2006 to
make English the state's official language for all government business, except
He said he believes a surge of Spanish-speaking immigrants threatens to turn
Arizona into a bilingual state.
"It's absolutely bad for America," he said. "We are an English-speaking nation,
and we need to encourage everyone to speak English."
Salmons began his study because he was struck by comments he often heard or read
from descendants of German immigrants.
"When my great-grandfather came, he didn't expect any help from anybody. He
learned English right away," was a typical pronouncement, Salmons said.
He pored over U.S. census data, court records, newspaper articles, books and
literature dating from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s related to the 300,000
German immigrants who settled in Wisconsin during that period.
Salmons found that not only had many German immigrants failed to learn English
decades after arriving in the U.S., many of their U.S.-born offspring hadn't
learned English, either.
"The full range of evidence shows that, into the 20th century, many immigrants,
their children and sometimes their grandchildren remained functionally
monolingual (German speakers) many decades after immigrations into their
communities had ceased," Salmons wrote in his report, published this fall by the
American Dialect Society.
The reason, Salmons said, is that the immigrants clustered together in
communities where their native language was commonly spoken. Back then, public
schools also taught children in German, pastors conducted services in German and
daily newspapers published in German, he said.
Many teachers, principals and church pastors spoke only German, which indicated
that not speaking English did little to inhibit social mobility.
A 2006 study by researchers at the University of California-Irvine and Princeton
University indicated that Hispanics quickly lose Spanish with each generation
and that the grandchildren of immigrants are likely to speak only English.
"Today, you are almost trapped in low-wage, low-skilled jobs until you learn
English," Salmons said. "In the 19th century, that was emphatically not the
Garcia, the Mexican immigrant who has lived in the U.S. for 35 years, is now
taking classes to learn English.
"Learning English is essential," she said. "I will be learning until the day I
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