When Do Immigrants Learn English? Likely, not when you think.

A timely repost, given the discussion going on here.


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.


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'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

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My Grandparents spoke Norwegian and German, I wish it was passed down.

My great grandparents on my fathers side spoke nothing but Italian. But curiously from my grandfather on down all spoke English.

My SO is one of those linguistic bigots. For example, there's a Price Rite supermarket nearby and yes, you hear a lot of Spanish spoken there. It drive him crazy.

I had to explain that the Italian immigration started in the late 19th into the early 20th century here in RI.

That the section of the city we live in, known as Federal Hill, didn't go to English speaking until the late 1970's.

I also had to point out that we have friends that are Puerto Rican, Dominican etc. Some of them are truly bi-lingual, for the most part the Puerto Ricans are in that camp.

The Dominicans are interesting though. Right now they are going into 3rd generation but interestingly many of the 2nd generation speak only English.

My great grandparents for both of my parents immigrated from various European countries. Of the Italian set, Pop learned English, Nana didn't. He made sure my grandmother knew English in addition to the Italian spoken at home. He Americanised her name from Italian when it was time to enroll her in school. My mother who stayed with my great grandparents during summers is bilingual.

My siblings and I? Not a word other than English was ever taught to us at home. In school I took Latin and Homeric Greek which has served me well in translating written words when I travel.

I really truly wish I were multi-lingual. I enrolled this past winter semester for a French course at the community college here as I am near Canada. The day before classes began, it was cancelled. Next one won't be offered until next winter semester. I am trying!

Having lived in Southern California I am well aware of entire areas where the only languages spoken and known by the speakers are their native ones, Armenian, Russian, Korean, Spanish, Thai, etc. They have very large communities they never venture away. Nor is there any need to speak English.

I find it a great conceit when people argue for immigrants needing to learn English yet complain when they decide to retire to Mexico that one of the requirements of living in Mexico is that you have to be able to speak Spanish.

Well, um, we live in a country where we learn to speak English from birth. We don't learn to speak Hungarian, or Italian, or German. So when I go to a restaurant and try to order something from the person at the windo, and I can't understand a word he says, it can be kind of frustrating, and I kind of wish that he/she would learn to speak English without an accent.

Change the laws and have all children in the U.S. taught to speak at least 3 other languages so that if someone comes from another country, rather than learn to speak our language, we can speak their language instead. Might be expensive, but then we wouldn't sound like bigots for wanting people in this country to speak the language most commonly spoken here.

By the same token, if I go to another country, I should learn the language there, not expect that culture to cater to me.

Beyond language,the right wing american exceptionalists also think that citizenship itself is a venerable legacy from the past but it too, like the issues of patriotism and loyalty, the pledge of allegiance, are really modern concepts and creations. Whether it's religion or nationalism, they require a shared myth, strongly held, by which they can judge the worth of others. Lacking a long history those needing some sort of cosmic reason for our being have confabulated an even more outrageous one. Human nature probably to a certain degree, but provincialism more likely, if not just plaine adamant arrogance and ignorance, really.

Homeric Greek which has served me well in translating written words when I travel.

That is especially useful when traveling in the ol' time machine!!!!

my family has always been bilingual, because they lived in an area of Europe where the borders just kept on moving back and forth. My mom's generation would have been the first one to know only one language (Polish), if it hasn't been for the fact that they all ended up migrating to Germany and learning German there. My generation is bi- or even tri-lingual (if the ubiquitous and relatively well spoken English is included).

as such, it was a given that we'd learn the language of wherever we went.

The issue in America is a different and complicated one, I think, because on the one hand, it's generally good when people have a common language, and even internationally that's English right now. on the other hand, English-speakers should really learn more languages, instead on relying on everybody to understand theirs (this would also help immensely with the strange lack of understanding monolinguals often have about what words actually are and how they work).

At this point, judging simply from demographics, Spanish and English should be mandatory in High-School. As for the other languages... I'm almost thinking a solution similar to the German solution for religious classes might work: in Germany, Religion is a mandatory class in secondary education, but you have the right to be educated in YOUR religion(or else take Ethics classes), and if the percentage of students from one religion reaches a certain point the school is obligated to provide classes in that religion. similar things could be implemented for language classes.

Of course such a thing would require school reform, but let's face it: the American school system is in dire need of a complete overhaul anyway.

Most of my ancestors came from England. One group came from the Netherlands in 1688 and another came from Germany in 1728. No one in my family speaks another language but I majored in German and I now live in a mostly-Hispanic area of Los Angeles and I can navigate pretty well. My last three years in grade school were at a Roman Catholic school built by Polish immigrants on the South side of Chicago. All of the second- and third-generation kids in my classes spoke Polish to some degree. The recent immigrants were put into English-only classes with minimal help but they seemed to pick up English fairly quickly. There was a lot of peer-pressure to learn English at that age. Some of their parents never learned to speak English.
People would often switch from English to Polish if they didn't want me to know what they were saying, but I caught on a little. We had "Polish lessons" but they were sporadic and not very well thought-out. After Vatican II when parishes started using the vernacular instead of Latin we switched to Polish. Languages always fascinated me, so I paid attention during our Polish lessons and I always got the highest grades. I think it was because the Polish kids didn't want to associate culturally or linguistically with the Old Country. But now, other than a few Christmas carols, I don't remember any of the Polish I learned.

My aunt Charlotte routinely complains about immigrants who don't learn English... but she herself IS an immigrant from Italy (to NYC, just after WWII). "If I had to learn this damn language, SO DO THEY!"

I'm a little less adamant than she is, but her complete lack of sympathy does contribute to some limits on mine.

So when I go to a restaurant and try to order something from the person at the windo, and I can't understand a word he says, it can be kind of frustrating, and I kind of wish that he/she would learn to speak English without an accent.

I've seen plenty of cases where someone has a mild accent and some people just stop trying to listen. I've never had a problem understanding any accent, because I don't start to feel all entitled when I hear one. I just listen a little closer and I've never had a problem. People who can't understand accents are usually just to lazy to try. I also hate it when someone is speaking English with an accent, and people will say, "I wish that person would just speak English." Get over yourself and just pay attention.

Change the laws and have all children in the U.S. taught to speak at least 3 other languages

This is a fantastic idea! All people should learn multiple languages for many reasons. One major reason is that learning other languages helps a person to learn English better. It's also useful for traveling, understanding cultures and history, and just fun. Also, it's best to teach this in childhood, as it is easier for kids to pick it up when they are young.

By the same token, if I go to another country, I should learn the language there, not expect that culture to cater to me.

Ain't it great how our own (English-speaking) ancestors did exactly this when they immigrated here? (/sarcasm)

"by Friday were speakin ina broken Englisha aceneto." You know, Italian and Spanish have so many cognates that it makes Spanglish much easier to learn...

By the real me (not verified) on 13 May 2009 #permalink