Anyway, this interesting news item (which you can catch up on here) in combination with this being National Political Ranting Week, has inspired me to edit and re-post this discussion of the transition from non-English speaker to English speaker in American Society.
I’m standing outside Luigi’s restaurant having a smoke, and Luigi’s doorman had joined me. Across the street a 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 for the mafia don to use in case of trouble.
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. At the time I stood in front of Luigi’s, the North End was a lot like the old Little Italy of New York depicted in the Godfather films. So just think of that when you read this.
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. If they’ve even given it a moment of serious thought.
You 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 from Italy or Russia or wherever, all the 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.
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 many Americans that people actually get mad at you (or at least, at me) when this reality is pointed out to them.
And sometimes you get a ticket.
Well, I would now like to draw your attention to a study that came out some time ago looking at English language learning among German immigrants.
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 immigrants or to Wisconsin) can be seen in the data shown in the following table, from this paper:
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 everyone including the American knows. I’m proud to say that when I worked in Zaire, that language was almost always KiSwahili (not English) but on a recent trip to France, I found myself dining at a resturant with five or so colleagues (I was the only American) and the only common languages were German and English, neither shared by all present. As a result, most of the conversation was carried out in Dutch (… don’t ask. It worked).
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