i-728c452750c757235e57e4b6f91e0c9f-Boston_North_End.jpg

The North End, Boston, Massachusetts
I’m standing outside Luigi’s restaurant having a smoke, and Luigi’s doorman had joined me. Across the street yellow stingray is parked, as usual, to block the alley. The word is, the fire escape down into that alley leads directly from Baronelli’s office. The stingray is an escape pod.

Almost every restaurant on Hanover street and the dozen side streets is like Luigi’s: owned by a family from a particular part of Italy or Sicily, with a local cuisine variant, and for the most part, run by the third generation in the family that originally immigrated to Boston’s North End.

I notice the door man take a quick glance up the street and subtly drop his smoke out of sight next to the stairs. He steps half way onto the sidewalk. Sure enough, Baronelli himself is coming down Hanover, walking his dog … a tiny frenetic brown thing … leash in one hand and an unlit cigar in the other. He’s actually wearing a white ascot to complement his thousand dollar Italian three-piece and light brown cape.

As Baronelli, the walking movie prop and Mafia chief, walks by, the door man address him in Italian, and Baronelli grunts back … but I think the grunt may have been in Italian as well.

This is 1981, and everybody in this neighborhood speaks Italian, because they are Italian. Second and third generation, yes, but Italian is the language of the home and the workplace. This is a neighborhood with zero unemployment, zero unorganized crime, and that serves the city in which it is ensconced as a major international tourist destination. And it is pretty much true that the Italian immigrants that moved to this neighborhood starting more than a century ago are still working on the English Only thing.

ResearchBlogging.orgYou hear it all the time: “Why don’t they just learn to speak English.” Indeed, the “English Only” movement pervades American culture, even crossing political lines. I have often heard otherwise perfectly liberal people complain, bitterly, Rush Limbaugh/Anne Coulter style, about how the guy in the coffee shop or the woman in the pizza joint, the cab driver, the lettuce picker, the chump who cleans your shoes should: Just. Learn. English.

If you prod a little more,scratch below the surface a bit, you will quickly find that these whiners who themselves speak exactly one and only one language also believe that back in the old days … back in the days of great grandpa who immigrated form Italy or Russia or wherever, and all the other immigrants learned English right away. I swear to you that this is true: Many American born English-only saps truly believe that the immigrants of yore got off the boat (back in, like, 1888), enrolled in the most readily available ESL class, and by Friday were speakin ina broken Englisha aceneto.

How offensive, and how stupid.

i-4f4f1f8bd63fb0dcb271a5f56fafe671-Herrman_The_German.jpg

Hermann the German. A status (not this one) of Herman graces New Ulm, Minnesota, and was built as the centerpiece of an early German cultural unity campaign.
In Wisconsin, entire communities retained German as the primary language for decades after immigration. I once met … at a centenary celebration of some kind … the grandchild of a man who moved as a teenager from the old country to southern Wisconsin, ahead of his family, to learn the local customs, farming techniques, and language. After a few years in a small town in Wisconsin, his family arrived to start farming. The young man had indeed learned the local practices, the local farming techniques, and the local language. German. His family, arab speakers from Palestine, were well served by this young man because German was all they needed to get along in the US.

There is a literature out there describing this. This is generally known to be true by people sensitive to historical issues of the 19th and early 20th century. But the concept that these earlier immigrants became instantly Americanized … a truly absurd idea … is so entrenched in the minds of the Now/Me/X generation that people actually get mad at you (or at least, at me) when this reality is pointed out to them.

Well, now there is a new study to back this up.

We present quantitative and qualitative evidence about Germans in Wisconsin, where, into the twentieth century, many immigrants and their descendants remained monolingual, decades after immigration had ceased. Even those who claimed to speak English often had limited command. Quantitative data from the 1910 Census, augmented by qualitative evidence from newspapers, court records, literary texts, and other sources, suggest that Germans of various socioeconomic backgrounds often lacked English language skills. German continued to be the primary language in numerous Wisconsin communities, and some second- and third-generation descendants of immigrants were still monolingual as adults. Understanding this history can help inform contemporary debates about language and immigration and help dismantle the myth that successful immigrant groups of yesterday owed their prosperity to an immediate, voluntary shift to English.

The extent of this particular phenomenon (which was not unique to German or to Wisconsin) can be seen in the data shown in the following table, from this paper:

i-b167d91bce3eee204226de09d13a5bf1-German-speaking_Wisconsin.png

I’d like to go back to the whining Americans who complain about the immigrants. I hear this almost exclusively from people who speak only English and no other language. That is annoying. But what about Americans who immigrate to places where English is not the main language? What do they do?

Well, a lot of them learn the local language, but many simply do not. If you ever spend time with ex-pats from multiple countries, you will know that it is almost always the case that the Americans have the narrowest range of linguistic skills, and the common language picked to converse is either English or the one language the American knows.

M. E. Wilkerson, J. Salmons (2008). “GOOD OLD IMMIGRANTS OF YESTERYEAR,” WHO DIDN’T LEARN ENGLISH: GERMANS IN WISCONSIN American Speech, 83 (3), 259-283 DOI: 10.1215/00031283-2008-020

Comments

  1. #1 Marek Eby
    October 19, 2008

    Great post. I hope that some day we’ll be able to get over this bizarre disconnect between what happend and what people think happend.

    Of course, it isn’t just a matter that people don’y know the truth, they also don’t WANT to know the truth, as you pointed out.

  2. #2 speedwell
    October 19, 2008

    I swear to you that this is true: Many American born English-only saps truly believe that the immigrants of yore got off the boat (back in, like, 1888), enrolled in the most readily available ESL class, and by Friday were speakin ina broken Englisha aceneto.

    Interestingly, that’s exactly what my father said he did. He was airlifted from Budapest to Pittsburgh in 1956 by the World Council of Churches (I think), where his sponsor family had a spot in an English class already reserved for him. He worked hard at learning English, got his citizenship as soon as humanly possible, married a Russian Jewish woman born in Pittsburgh, and refused to teach his children Hungarian because “we are Americans now.” I got in no end of trouble for disrespectfully suggesting that he should not help me with my high school term papers because English was his second language and my first…. yes, I know better now.

  3. #3 Joshua Zelinsky
    October 19, 2008

    My impression is that there’s a lot of variation between cultures and groups in terms of how much they retain as a language from the old country. Also, different factors can influence it. For example, Jewish immigrants from area of Europe have often quickly learned English in part because their was less of feeling of connection to the language and culture that they came from. This was especially true post WWII when the Jewish immigrants from Germany and Poland had just been subject to terrible mistreatment by their countrymen and thus felt even less of a connection.

    (Also minor typo- “realit” should be “reality”)

  4. #4 HP
    October 19, 2008

    Cincinnati still has the last remaining German-language elementary school to survive the German-language purges 1918.

    Of course, the students today learn German as a second language, but they’ve been a bilingual school since 1888.

    You still find bits of German-American linguistic nationalism in Cincinnati. I was amazed, when I moved down here a dozen years ago, to see that vandals had climbed out over the interstate to spraypaint an umlaut on the Hopple Street exit on I-75.

  5. #5 Jim Thomerson
    October 19, 2008

    Sometime back, I met a Greek immigrant family who had been incountry less than two years. The father worked in his cousin’s resturant and spoke broken English. The mother spoke no English. The 15-year old daughter spoke good English with a Greek accent. The 10-year old daughter spoke unaccented English as good as it gets in Chicago.

  6. #6 Mike
    October 19, 2008

    Interesting post. Though I have to wonder whether the example is appropriate. There’s still a lot of small communities where a language other than English is the primary language of the locals. While it no doubt causes issues for English speaking visitors, and often the added burden of having to do “official” materials in a lot of different languages, I don’t think it’s the issue most of the “Just learn English” arguments are based on.

    The complaint doesn’t come when English speakers go into enclaves like the ones you mention in Wisconsin or existing ones like China Town in San Francisco. They come when people who haven’t learned English are out interacting with the general population in public. If you’re working at a pizza joint outside your ‘home community’ or driving a cab where you’re interacting with the general population, not learning English isn’t really a workable option.

    For the record, my ex-girl friend’s folks came from Czechoslovakia in ’68. Within a few years they could both speak English fluently. Most of the folks I know at the local Afghan restaurant came to the states during the Regan years – and they all learned English within a matter of years. In both cases, the local communities they were part of were interacting with the general population and not isolated. Some immigrants DO learn English quickly.

  7. #7 Jake
    October 19, 2008

    My question is, how does this remain possible in the modern context of public schools. Do local school boards have the authority to make the language of instruction not English, if English is not the dominant language? And if not, how do kids manage to make it through one year of school, let alone 12, without learning the language of instruction.

    I don’t believe they should have to learn English (as a born-and-bred Torontonian, I’m a fan of cultural and linguistic diversity), but I just don’t see how several generations of publicly educated kids manage not to. Or is my assumption that they’re publicly educated faulty? I know that the deliberately-insular community of Hasidic Jews in Montreal (and probably Toronto) send their kids to their own schools where Yiddish is the language of instruction, and many learn just enough English or French to get by.

  8. #8 Stephanie Z
    October 19, 2008

    Mike, if you haven’t heard people walking into (or more likely, driving through) immigrant communities and saying this, count yourself lucky.

  9. #9 Markk
    October 19, 2008

    My Grandfather used to deliver the German paper in MKE in the teens. It was one of the cities major newspapers. World War I was the great killer of German as an accepted major language in southeastern Wisconsin according to my family history. People started to use Engish instead of German conciously. Not all the time, but all it took was a somewhat concerted effort and the German language culture went away. Classes were suddenly all in English for the kids – even in parochial schools and Sunday Schools. Not that my Aunt and Uncle didn’t speak German at home in the 1960’s even, but it was not a social thing anymore.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    October 19, 2008

    Stephanie: Right. Or even just “What are those Mexicans on my roof doing speaking Spanish!?!? Can’t they learn English???

    (Heard after hail damage in many neighborhoods)

  11. #11 The Ridger
    October 19, 2008

    The demand is usually twofold: not just “Learn English” but “and stop speaking Spanish!” (or Chinese / Vietnamese / Nigerian / fill in the blank with the name or presumed name of language)

  12. #12 Stephanie Z
    October 19, 2008

    Ridger, good point. I don’t think the impetus for the demands is nearly so much “Don’t make me do extra work to understand you” as it is “Don’t make me feel like the excluded other. That’s your job.”

    And Greg, all we heard was a lot of pounding. Turns out our roof decking is oak.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    October 19, 2008

    Oak in your house? Not at all surprising. Oak cut from the woods of the southern counties by little browninsh people with names like Sven Igorsssen and Thor Svenssen. If you go into your attic you can almost hear the chatter “yerdy yerdy yerdy” of the immigrant workers striving to some day become upstanding citizens like Tom Petter and Michelle Bachmann.

  14. #14 Stephanie Z
    October 19, 2008

    I don’t know who built the railroad housing, which is what our place probably is. I should find out. Then I’ll at least be hearing the right sorts of things.

    No attic, though. Full third floor. It was clearly servants’ quarters once. Oak overhead, but a floor made of pine.

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    October 19, 2008

    Ah. Pine… Cut from the northern tier of counties by hirsute immigrants with names like Kai Nikulainen, Adelheid, Luukas and Paavo Sibelius. You can feel the socialist tendencies coming through your bare feet when you walk to the bathroom in the morning….

  16. #16 Stephanie Z
    October 19, 2008

    Alas, the pine is no more. Splinters tend to distract one from one’s socialist tendencies.

  17. #17 lylebot
    October 19, 2008

    When I hear “just speak English”, the context is usually an undergrad dealing with a Chinese or Indian grad student who actually speaks English perfectly well. I knew a Chinese graduate student that spoke great English, but had an odd rhythm that made him sound like one of those old text-to-speech programs. The undergrads claimed they couldn’t understand him. Sometimes they even came to me with these complaints. I rolled my eyes at them.

  18. #18 Joshua Zelinsky
    October 19, 2008

    Lyle, I’d give them more credit there. If a subject si difficult it can be hard to simultaneously follow a strong accent or nonstandard cadence and follow what the individual is saying. On the other hand, I know at least one occasion where a certain undergrad made this sort of complaint about a TA as a basis for why the undergrad wasn’t doing well and the TA’s native language was English. So maybe sometimes’ it is a genuine issue and sometimes it is just an excuse? The real question then becomes what the ratios are.

  19. #19 chancelikely
    October 20, 2008

    Usually, I generalize it to “People should learn the language of the place they’re emigrating to”, get them to agree to that, and then ask why their ancestors didn’t learn Ojibwe (or Iroquois, or Wampanoag, or Cherokee, or Lakota).

    This is America! We kill the Indians and name our states and cities and football teams after them! We cut down the trees and name our housing subdivisions after them!

  20. #20 Monado in Toronto
    October 20, 2008

    Reminds me of a favourite joke — about a Polish fellow who slipped away from Communism and came to Canada, got a job in a construction gang — and in a month or so was speaking colloquial Italian!

    Speaking of coming to Canada, who’s trekking to Toronto to hear PZ at the Centre for Inquiry on Hallowe’en weekend?

  21. #21 yogi-one
    October 20, 2008

    This is right up there with people who think Jesus was a tall blue-eyed white guy who spoke English.

    Like, say, for example, Sarah Palin.

  22. #22 Lassi Hippelšinen
    October 20, 2008

    Multilingualism is the norm in many parts of the world. Here in Finland we have two official languages; Switzerland has four. Both countries are small, and in both countries English is yet another language.

    It is common even at grassroot level in poor countries. In an African market square you may hear half a dozen languages, and many vendors are more of less fluent in all of them. In much of the thirld world there are several local languages, because the colonialists didn’t pay attention to boundaries of tribal regions. On top of that is the language of the colonialists themselves, used as the language of administration and higher education.

    I simply don’t get the “just speak English” attitude. It stinks of racism. Being monolingual is like having only one eye.

  23. #23 greg
    October 20, 2008

    i worked in a few restaurant kitchens as an undergraduate and spanish was always the main language. it seems logical that if the most of the kitchen staff’s native language is spanish then everybody should speak spanish. (there were about ten spanish speaking kitchen staff and only five front room staff).

    however, i love to tell this story. also, when i was an undergraduate i had a professor who was a native chinese speaker. out of a hundred students or so, there were a few dozen native chinese speakers and about ten of them sat together in the front row of the lecture hall. occasionally, they would converse with each other during the lecture in chinese. one day, after about five minutes of class, the professor stopped what he was lecturing on and scolded the students in the front row for talking to each other in chinese. he then went on for the balance of the hour to lecture the class in general on the need to speak english in public at all times. among the reasons he gave was that as non-native speakers they needed to practice english and that it was rude to be in a public place and not speaking the native language because the native speakers often assume you are talking about them.

    as intolerant as many americans are about people not speaking english, other countries are often the opposite. i have lived in asia for almost 20 years and people are still amazed that i can speak, read and write the local language. i have acquaintances that have lived here as long as i have and can not speak a coherent sentence.

  24. #24 Graculus
    October 20, 2008

    It would be nice if USians learned to speak English. Worst tech support I ever experienced was trying to understand some guy in Arkansas. Give me “Steven” from Mumbai anyday.

    WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO THE VOWELS?

    (Canadian by way of UK, FWIW)

  25. #25 JM
    October 20, 2008

    This happens in other countries as well. My brother-in-law’s mother is/was Egyptian and she does *not* speak English despite having been here for nearly 60 years. She speaks Arabic, French (which I use to talk to her) and a couple of other languages but I can’t remember what they are.

    But not English, despite living almost her entire adult life in an English speaking country.

    I was also in the wine growing district of South Australia about 20 years ago and met several of the older people who spoke only German, and this was despite the WWI effect where towns were renamed and the language suppressed.

  26. #26 Greg Laden
    October 20, 2008

    Stephanie: I don’t know who built the railroad housing, which is what our place probably is. I should find out. Then I’ll at least be hearing the right sorts of things.

    I know. Amanda’s father’s mother’s father, if it was railroad housing. Norweigan and Irish laborers, I think. He used to keep them in a big barn up on Coon Lake for the winter, otherwise they would not be there in the Spring when contracts started. Chances are they built stuff in the cities like your house in the winter when contracts were available.

  27. #27 Greg Laden
    October 20, 2008

    Where I grew up, the names of the German towns were not changed, just repronounced. Like BerLIN became BERlin.

  28. #28 Josh
    October 20, 2008

    Or, to use an even more extreme example, the Cajuns of south Louisiana. Their immigration (from Nova Scotia, by way of France/UK/Eastern seaboard) stopped way back in the 1780s. But my great-grandmother, who died in 1988, didn’t speak a word of English — French only. And there were lots of French-only Cajuns in her generation — despite the fact her ancestors had lived in Louisiana for 200 years. French-only (or at least French-dominant) lasted until well after WWII.

  29. #29 ildi
    October 20, 2008

    I see both sides of this issue. My parents were also off-the-boat Hungarians, but they settled in Chattanooga (poor dears), so they learned English ASAP. Hungarian was my first language; I didn’t really learn English until I started to play with kids in the neighborhood. If we spoke Hungarian around others, they always thought we were talking about them. I also took college courses taught by foreign graduate students who were totally unintelligible.

    I think multilingual schools are the best idea; everyone learn Spanish and English, for example, in areas with a dominant Hispanic population. Seems a win-win to me! Maybe Americans would be less parochial as a result.

  30. #30 Becca
    October 20, 2008

    Oh Greggie, I do so love it when you forcibily set aside one “unPC” sterotype only to latch on to another one (with perhaps even less substance!).
    I’ll see your generational sterotype, and raise you one.
    *rolls eyes* Boomers blaming X’ers is like, sooooooooooo 1990! (as are Valley Girl impressions).
    Coulter and Limgaugh are, after all, Baby Boomers. Maybe this isn’t the villified X’ers problem at all.

    Goading aside, I do hope it’s an attitude problem to be outlived. Generation.com is more diverse, has more international experience, and may not be so stupid on this issue. For one thing, some of us have studied Hanyu and know how totally frickin difficult it is (and yeah, they’re smarter than us, but the inverse transition can’t be easy either)!

  31. #31 Stephanie Z
    October 20, 2008

    No waaaay, Becca. Valley speak is fer sure, like totally 1984.

    Interesting. I read that statement from Greg as laying fault on the intervening generations for losing or burying the history.

  32. #32 Greg Laden
    October 20, 2008

    Becca: I thought the Boomers were part of the Me generation. If not, I apologize. Most of the people I hear talking about how “they need to learn English” are ten years older than me down through ten years younger, so from boomers to oldish x-ers. Older folks know better, younger ones that I know are all liberals and anarchists and such.

    Or, as you say, g.com is just different in this respect.

    Stephanie: Why didn’t I just read your post before I responded to Becca?

  33. #33 Stephanie Z
    October 20, 2008

    Greg, I think you’re confusing the Me generation with the Me decade. That would be the 70s, when both we Xers and our parents were acting like children with poor impulse control. I think we had the better excuse, of course, although I’m sympathetic to the Boomers’ arguments of rebellion.

    And it was because of the Valley speak, obviously. It was just too painful. You had to work your way up to it.

  34. #34 Greg Laden
    October 20, 2008

    So I’m confused. Who are the Me’s then? I’m thinking of the middle class consumers who have been driving the consumer driven market in the US for the last 20 years. The people who, when I see something advertized on TV, I think “who would want one of those THAT big and/or loud? Or at least, wait until the price goes from 4,000 to 400 dollars” but they, the Me’s are lining up at Best Buy or wherever to get two of them.

  35. #35 Yal
    October 20, 2008

    Globally, Americans are known for their lack of actual language skills, but are usually considered fairly smart anyway. But lately we do see you as more annoying than in the more distant past.

  36. #36 Stephanie Z
    October 20, 2008

    Consumer and marketing data is one of those areas in which I am completely unqualified to offer any opinion, so I don’t know. I always just call them suburbanites and exurbanites.

  37. #37 Becca
    October 20, 2008

    Stephanie Z- ah ha! I should have known better than to let Alicia Silverstone influence my views of anything, even popculture.

    Greg- If by “Now/Me/X Generation” you meant Boomers + Oldest GenXers, at least it’s coherant with the rightwingwhackaloons you mentioned.
    I’m gonna assume the attitude you describe is another marker for a cultural dimension (xenophobia, in this case) that is both cyclic and progressive.

  38. #38 Elizabeth
    October 20, 2008

    Becca: I think Greg is not a Boomer, he’s a Tweener or something.

  39. #39 arn
    October 20, 2008

    Is there a Luigi’s on Hanover Street?

  40. #40 joel
    October 20, 2008

    spraypaint an umlaut

    An umlaut? All by itself?

  41. #41 Greg Laden
    October 20, 2008

    Arn: I don’t think so.

    The name of the Mafia Don and the restaurant were changed to protect the … well,changed for obvious reasons.

  42. #42 Calli Arcale
    October 20, 2008

    As a for instance, I went to St Olaf College in Northfield, MN. While the college is officially English-speaking and doesn’t use other languages outside of courses where you’d normally expect other languages to appear (eg. foreign language courses), it didn’t start out that way. St Olaf Academy was originally created as a K-12 institution over a century ago for the children of Norwegian immigrants. Norwegian was spoke in all of the classrooms. The idea was to help the immigrants’ children get a good education despite not speaking English very well (if at all). It only became anglophone as the students did, which took about a generation. Even today, St Olaf retains a lot of 19th Century Scandinavian traditions, most evident at the traditional Christmas dinner — which includes lutefisk, lefse, rommegrot, and other such dishes. Yet I encountered fellow students even at St Olaf upset about immigrants not speaking English. How quickly we forget our own past….

  43. #43 Greg Laden
    October 20, 2008

    Calli …. how was the Lutefisk at St. Olies? I’ve been trying to get my Scandinavian inlaws to come up with some Lutefisk but so far all I get is meatballs.

  44. #44 Tsu Dho Nimh
    October 20, 2008

    I have a copy of the document one of my immigrant ancestors filed with Massachusetts Bay Colony to become a resident. It is in FRENCH! If “English Sometimes” was good enough for the Founding Fathers, Paul Revere, and my many times Great-whatever, it’s good enough for me.

  45. #45 Tsu Dho Nimh
    October 20, 2008

    There is a huge colony of American expats in Mexico on Lake Chapala (near Guadalajara). Many of them have been living there for 20+ years and are PROUD that they have not bothered to learn any Spanish.

    Decades ago, I was traveling in Latin America and the most common guess for my nationality was … of all things … DANISH! I was too blonde to be Italian, too friendly to be French or German, didn’t talk like a Brit, didn’t have the right accent in Spanish to be Spanish, too short to be Swedish or Norwegian … therefore I must be Danish.

    Why not American? Well, because “everyone knows Americans can’t speak anything but English.”

  46. #46 Thomas M.
    October 20, 2008

    “I simply don’t get the “just speak English” attitude. It stinks of racism.”

    You seem to be missing the point here. This ‘just speak English’ attitude is NOT about expecting people to be monolingual. It is about expecting them to learn to be bilingual if they are going to move to another country where their native language is not the common tongue, rather than expecting others (outside of their monolingual community) to bend over backwards and learn their language to appease them so they don’t have to learn the common tongue, despite having chosen to immigrate to a given country knowing full well that their native tongue is not what is commonly spoken there. No one gives a damn if they retain their native language as long as they learn to speak English, too. This is about frustration with groups of immigrants refusing to show a sense of common decency and make an attempt to adapt to new surroundings, not racism. Which, frankly, brings up another salient point that hasn’t been discussed — This ‘just speak English’ attitude is NOT about people who live within their own, isolated communities. It is about those who insist upon moving to areas where their language is not commonly spoken, and then expecting everyone else to learn it, or at the very least, make sure to hire large groups of bilingual people and print every piece of paper work in two languages because they wish to communicate on their own terms, rather than that of everyone else. The history behind these communities is irrelevant to this.

    “There is a huge colony of American expats in Mexico on Lake Chapala (near Guadalajara). Many of them have been living there for 20+ years and are PROUD that they have not bothered to learn any Spanish.”

    This does not surprise me. Ironically,we have the very same attitudes here among many of the Hispanic immigrants (I live in a border state). The way their kids (that speak English, having been through the public school system) explain it to me is that they feel it is demeaning to learn the ‘Gringo Language.’

    For my background and more general views on the subject:

    My family were a group of German immigrants that came over in the 1910s and took to farming. They worked their asses off to learn English so they could successfully communicate with others and fit in. Sadly, we lost the German over a few generations and ended up with a group of people that (mostly) only speak English. I have a bit too much on my plate right now, but I do plan to learn German at some point in my life. And for that matter, if I move out of America to a country where English is not the common tongue, I will fuck sure work my ass off to learn that language instead of expecting them to bend over backwards for me.

    My basic point of view is this: It is common decency for any given group of immigrants to make an attempt to learn the common tongue of a place they move to. If they choose to retain their original language, too, great! Two languages are better than one. HOWEVER, unless they are going to be capable of functioning exclusively within a given community that speaks their native language and will never have to leave and cause a pain in the ass for others due to not being able to communicate. If they cannot manage this, they have no business refusing to learn the common tongue of that area. And yes, this applies to Americans, too. I find it shameful that ex-pats live in countries where English is not the primary language and refuse to make the simple concession of learning their language.

    That said, I think we’re going pretty far off-base here by drawing a (very strongly implied) line from the group of people who expect people living in America to learn English to those who go live in other countries and refuse to learn the language there. It’s a convenient stereotype to use, but I’m pretty sure it’s off-base. Of course, it is *much* easier to argue against a particular position if you can use straw men to turn your opponents into a group of ignorant rednecks that hate the idea of other people being bilingual and would never care to learn a second language themselves…

  47. #47 greg laden
    October 20, 2008

    Tsu: Ben Franklin routinely wrote letters in French (I think). It was done because it was cool. In the previous century English and French speaking people of the upper classes wrote in Latin. Having a handful of languges to use as needed gives us a certain …. je ne sais pas…

    But for tonight, I’m tired and have to say: Basi. Tutaonana.

    Ciao

  48. #48 Jason
    October 20, 2008

    My wife is a recent immigrant (~5 years) and spoke fluent English (and two other languages) when she arrived, and she frequently complains that people don’t speak English when she’s trying to buy something, etc. She also points out that it’s not the individual’s fault, but the business owner/manager’s fault. People can speak whatever language they want, but if we’re paying for a service, then conversing in (a reasonable approximation of) English is required, assuming we’re not in an enclave.

    There’s nothing wrong with not speaking English, (or anything else), unless it’s part of a transaction where communication is required. At that point it IS a problem.

  49. #49 Aquaria
    October 21, 2008

    Americans are this way when they’re out of the country, too.

    My mother thought the Japanese were rude for a lot of reasons but especially because, when she was on a long layover in Tokyo, the clerks at stores wouldn’t automatically communicate with her in English. Some of them wouldn’t do it at all.

    I asked her if it would be right for the Japanese to call us rude because the clerks at the mall or the mini mart in Tyler, TX wouldn’t speak Japanese to them. Before she could even think about it, she answered, “They’re here. They should learn our language!” And of course I pointed out her hypocrisy and general American arrogance and assholery for expecting the Japanese to speak English to Americans who are in their country, but that Americans don’t have to reciprocate by speaking Japanese to those Japanese who are in our country.

    And, honestly, all she would have had to do to get all the attention she could have ever wanted was an arigato or onegai, ohayo or konnichiwa (sp?). Said in a calm voice. And not being like the “friendly” Rottweiler who comes running up to you, nearly knocks you over and starts licking your face, maybe even peeing on your brand new Pradas–i.e., the American idea of “friendly.”

    Anyway, I’m terribly ashamed that I’m one of those people who couldn’t speak Japanese to a speaker who visited this country. Or French. Or any other language. I know a few words of a few languages, but I don’t know more than that. I just can’t grasp foreign languages, for some strange reason, no matter what method of instruction I get.

  50. #50 JustaTech
    October 21, 2008

    The people in my lab come in almost exactly two types: Americans, and Chinese immigrants. And the Russian girl, but she’s new. I think it’s a little strange that we only had people from two groups, but that’s the way it is. Some of my Chinese co-workers have been here for many years and speak English quite well. Others, not so much. And while I hate, hate, hate having people speak over my head in another language, I am always impressed that any of them speak English at all. From what I have read learning new languages becomes much harder as you get older, particularly when the new language is very different from what you have started with. I am mostly language-deaf, making even my native language challenging some times, and other languages very, very difficult (ask my high school Spanish teachers).

    So while it might be frustrating trying to work with people you don’t understand, I try very hard to be sympathetic. I am thinking about buying one guy some American TV show on DVD so he can practice listening, but I can’t think of any show he’d like.

  51. #51 Bob
    October 21, 2008

    My dad’s side of the family includes illiterate English dirt farmers who emigrated here in the 1830s and some Italian; I don’t know how they fared linguistically, but IIRC nobody on his side of the family speaks Italian. My mom’s side is a bit different, being Polish. I believe they emigrated in the 1920’s and settled in a Polish ghetto in a small town in western New York, the town where the Italian owner of the local Burger King refused to put up “Home of the Whopper” for ethnic reasons. I find that story alternately hilarious and appalling, more the latter as time goes on.

    My grandmother and her friends would sit on the back stoop of her house, smoke cigarettes and talk in Polish; they’re all gone now but the kids and some of the grandkids know a little Polish. One of my cousins owns the house now and has done a great job renovating it; it’s hard to imagine her raising so many kids in a four bedroom house.

    These are the images that come to me when I hear the Lou Dobbs and the nativists go off on their screeds about brown (and don’t fool yourself – they’d never complain about Nordic or stalwart Aryan types) immigrants coming to the US and chittering in their unwelcome native tongue. When the latinos in Austin marched to protest the Republican Brown People Hysteria (er, Immigration “Crisis”), I saw in them my ancestors. The difference – my ancestors were pasty Europeans and got here earlier via boat.

    At present I’m moving out of Texas (originally pronounced tay-hass and originally peopled by natives and later, by Mexicans) for a job up in Chicagoland (peopled originally by natives and later, by criminals.) I will be doing some consulting engineering work in Sweden and (apparently) unlike my coworkers, I’m trying to learn Swedish. Granted, everyone I will work with will speak English but to me, it doesn’t matter. I simply do not feel comfortable in a country where I don’t speak the native language, and further I feel it’s my responsibility to be intelligible to the locals, not the other way around. Besides, isn’t it cool to speak another language? It’s like knowing how to sail or field-dress a deer – you never know when you’ll need the skill. So far I can count from 1 to 20 and say “Yes, please” and “No, thanks”; the language appears to be a cross between German, Chaucer-era English, with a bit of Muppet Show thrown in to maintain a happy cadence.

    I lived through the PC collegiate bullshit in the late 80s and early 90s where it was considered gauche, if not downright cross-burning racist, to expect (say) your physics, math, or engineering TA to speak intelligible English. Perish the thought you could actually understand the speech of the person contracted to teach you. Luckily my worst TA was a fluent chemistry TA from California and my best TA was a stuttering Chinese chemical engineering TA; that assessment was based solely on their ability and willingness to get the material across to undergrads regardless of verbal issues, and to be fair, if you consider mathematical notation a language, my stuttering Chinese TA was far more fluent in the language that mattered. Plus he seemed to care. I’d have been livid had the situation been reversed because the PC canard was always “but isn’t it better to learn French from a native speaker?” Sure, but the Indian math TA’s tendency to refer to “n by n mattresses” was more distracting than culturally enlightening; I’m paying to learn transport phenomena, or neutronics, or Fourier analysis, not to act as an ad-hoc technical translator because my alma mater was more interested in research and funding its grad students than educating its undergrads. That was nearly two decades ago so hopefully the mood and the standard for classroom intelligibility at the UW has improved since then. The football team has improved, but I don’t see that as a positive sign.

    One final anecdote: My sister arranged a family vacation in Barcelona last Christmas and while a few of us knew restaurant and kitchen Spanish to varying degrees, it’s not the same as Continental Spanish. Besides, Barcelona’s native language is Catalan which is a cross between French and Spanish with the addition of all the X’s not used by other Western European languages (surprisingly sensible and efficient.) On the way to the Picasso museum downtown, my wife and I found a little mask shop, and being improvisors we had to go in to check out their Commedia masks. We had a very nice conversation with the cashier Clara despite neither of us speaking each other’s language. It turned into a big game of cross-cultural charades and we all had a great laughing time trying to sort it all out. It was definitely the highlight of the trip.

  52. #52 Jeff
    October 24, 2008

    Not being able to speak to each other does not create communities….

    Not speaking a second language does not make one racist, lazy or a republican. I would have to drive for at least 3 days( maybe longer ) before I would find anyone who doesn’t speak english. What do I need to spend time and brain power and energy on learning a new language for ? I have paintings to do and books to write. But if I move to another country I WILL learn the language, and not live in a little walled off version of ‘home’.

  53. #53 Lilian Nattel
    December 29, 2008

    So many interesting comments. Studies have shown that children who speak their parents’ first language with them are subsequently more proficient in English. If their parents speak fragmented English with them, it actually adversely affects their own language development. Children are better off learning their first language from fluent language speakers. Mind you this is a generalization. My immigrant parents spoke English to me & I’m a writer (in English!).

  54. #54 Benjamin Geiger
    December 29, 2008

    Lilian:

    That bodes well for my coworkers’ child: her mother tongue is Nepali, his mother tongue is English, and the mother tongue of the daycare operator is Spanish. Kid’s gonna grow up to speak 20 languages.

  55. #55 Sandra Porter
    January 2, 2009

    Greg- that’s a great photo of Hermann the German! I saw that statue last summer at a wedding in New Ulm.

  56. #56 OnigiriFB
    January 11, 2009

    What a load of BS. I’m a Thai-American who has lived in the States and in Thailand. I’ve seen first hand the arrogance of those who refuse to learn English after they move to the US. People who do not even try to learn enough English to get by on a day to day basis are just plain stupid. They choose to hold themselves back and DEMAND the majority learn their language. English is the common tongue of the world and many countries require students to learn English from a young age to be competitive in a global market. Expecting the general public to kowtow and know Spanish is what the so called “racist Republicans” (I’m neither and I agree with English only laws) are up in arms about. Personally, I’ve never met an immigrant who was not Spanish speaking who demanded that John Q Public and government speak their language. They all realize that the US is an English speaking country.

    As to the ex-pat anecdote I’m not sure where you get that stereotype that American ex-pats aren’t trying to learn the native language of wherever they live. All the American ex-pat I’ve met in the 5 years of living in Thailand knew or was in the process of learning Thai. Not one of them complained that the Thai government or general Thai population didn’t speak English. Not one of them demanded that everyone around them know English. In fact many of them actually went “native”. Is there a stereotype of the “ugly American” tourist. Yes, but there is also the “ugly Chinese”, “ugly Russian”, etc, etc. A tourist is one thing and immigrant to a country far different.

    BTW I’m tri-lingual and have studied both Spanish and ASL. I’m just as angry about the arrogant stupid people who deliberately refuse to learn English here as those who want to enforce their religion on everyone else. I.E. Muslim cab drivers who refuse passengers who have alcohol but then sue the airport when they ban them. Practice your religion or speak your language all you want just realize that the general public does not need to conform to your views/language/religion/etc. Any immigrant who moves to a country where a different language is spoken by the majority of those who live there and do not at least try to learn that language are just plain arrogant and stupid. It’s a shame no matter what color you are.

  57. #57 OnigiriFB
    January 11, 2009

    What a load of BS. I’m a Thai-American who has lived in the States and in Thailand. I’ve seen first hand the arrogance of those who refuse to learn English after they move to the US. People who do not even try to learn enough English to get by on a day to day basis are just plain stupid. They choose to hold themselves back and DEMAND the majority learn their language. English is the common tongue of the world and many countries require students to learn English from a young age to be competitive in a global market. Expecting the general public to kowtow and know Spanish is what the so called “racist Republicans” (I’m neither and I agree with English only laws) are up in arms about. Personally, I’ve never met an immigrant who was not Spanish speaking who demanded that John Q Public and government speak their language. They all realize that the US is an English speaking country.

    As to the ex-pat anecdote I’m not sure where you get that stereotype that American ex-pats aren’t trying to learn the native language of wherever they live. All the American ex-pat I’ve met in the 5 years of living in Thailand knew or was in the process of learning Thai. Not one of them complained that the Thai government or general Thai population didn’t speak English. Not one of them demanded that everyone around them know English. In fact many of them actually went “native”. Is there a stereotype of the “ugly American” tourist. Yes, but there is also the “ugly Chinese”, “ugly Russian”, etc, etc. A tourist is one thing and immigrant to a country far different.

    BTW I’m tri-lingual and have studied both Spanish and ASL. I’m just as angry about the arrogant stupid people who deliberately refuse to learn English here as those who want to enforce their religion on everyone else. I.E. Muslim cab drivers who refuse passengers who have alcohol but then sue the airport when they ban them. Practice your religion or speak your language all you want just realize that the general public does not need to conform to your views/language/religion/etc. Any immigrant who moves to a country where a different language is spoken by the majority of those who live there and do not at least try to learn that language are just plain arrogant and stupid. It’s a shame no matter what color you are.

  58. #58 Holly
    January 15, 2009

    Thank you for this post!! Obviously I’m finding it months after it’s publication, but I am very happy I did. I work with newly arrived Latin American immigrants in New Orleans, a place that, prior to Katrina, had not seen the recent immigration waves from Central/South American and the Caribbean in the same manner as the rest of the Southeast. Negativity around our new population reigns supreme, even among the city’s most progressive groups. Your post gives me something to link to in my next work-related rant. Thanks!

  59. #59 Bruce
    February 11, 2010

    OnigiriFB, great post!

    Of course, Greg Laden, the original poster, comes in with a straw-man, claiming that Limbaugh and others are requesting that people never speak anything but English in the US. He couldn’t be further from the truth. What Limbaugh and even some progressives have a problem with is the move to adapt the US to the language of the immigrants – hence, “learn english.” The Germans coming here would have been better off learning English faster, but even so, they did not expect other people to learn German or use German. They learned English as needed.

    And by the way, I lived in Germany for one year – a year – and learned German well enough to get by (Wir konnen auch auf Deutsch reden wenn Sie wollen). Perhaps Limbaugh and others simply have too high an estimate of the intelligence of these immigrants. The right assumes they have the ability to learn English, instead we should adapt to them? Perhaps you are right Greg, these immigrants truly are so boneheaded – we must lower our expectations?

  60. #60 wade
    September 10, 2010

    its really so important to learn your living countries’language.

  61. #61 Cobwebgall
    United States
    June 9, 2014

    HP writes:
    “You still find bits of German-American linguistic nationalism in Cincinnati. I was amazed, when I moved down here a dozen years ago, to see that vandals had climbed out over the interstate to spraypaint an umlaut on the Hopple Street exit on I-75.”

    You do realize that the umlaut over the O in the Hopple Street exit sign was a very daring prank by a student at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, who was not German but thought that it was really funny to put umlauts on words in other languages? Yes, I knew him.

Current ye@r *