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


The North End, Boston, Massachusetts
Over the last three years, thirty nine drivers were cited by Dallas cops for not speaking English. There is apparently a $204 fine for not speaking English while driving in Dallas. Supposedly this stems form a Federal regulation that big rig truckers must be able to speak English. This regulation was over zealously interpreted and implemented in Dallas, and enforcement of this dumb-ass rule has actually been carried out. It is most astonishing to me that it took three years of Dallas cops handing out these citations for people to suddenly realize that they were living in a world of shame and oppression. But that's Texas for you. I suppose Texans expect this. The recipients of these citation probably consider themselves lucky that they weren't executed.

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.

A Rewritten Repost in Celebration of National Political Ranting Week.

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.

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 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.


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, Arabic 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 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

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Huh. I've known the basics of the argument for some time, and some anecdotal stories, but I've never seen that sort of actual data. Very interesting.

I do have a bone to pick with word choice in the piece, though. Particularly with "American" in relation to ex-pats and monolingual English speakers. Americans abroad are far from the only people who don't bother with a second language. My experience with Britons both in the UK and in Spain and Turkey is that they are at least as vehemently monolingual as the stereotypical American monoglot. Come to think of it, you see the same thing with a lot of Australians. Perhaps it's more of an Anglophone, rather than American, phenomenon.

But what about Americans who immigrate to places where English is not the main language? What do they do?

Most of them don't learn much of that language UNLESS they are going there to work. I heard of and met people who had been living in Mexico for 10+ years yet who had never bothered to learn more than a few words of Spanish. Most were retirees living in the gringo ghettos.

The most common guess about my nationality when I traveled in Latin America was Danish (they would ask where I was from, and I would ask in Spanish "where do you think I'm from). I'm 5'5", grey eyes, dark reddish blonde hair.

Why Danish? I was too short and/or not blonde enough to be Norwegian or Swedish, too friendly to be German or French, too blonde to be Italian, didn't have the right accent to be Spanish or Latin American (my accent in Spanish is not typical of Americans, it's closer to Mexican).

Why not American? Because everyone knew that Americans can't speak Spanish!

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 27 Oct 2009 #permalink

I'm fourth generation Italian on my fathers side, my mother brings the Irish and surprisingly Mohawk.

My great grandparents didn't speak a bit of English. So I remember addressing them in Italian. It's why when studying Spanish in my high school days, and now Italian as an adult it's so familiar to me.

But usually by the 2nd or 3rd generation you start seeing the changeover to English as the milk tongue.

Yes Tsu, I'm from Costa Rica and is an universal truth that the Americans doesn't speak spanish, and if a few of them learn spanish their accent is too distinctive. Here we have gringoss ghettos too, and besides the language, they consume only american products, and don't "mix" with the local population. In another line od thought, costaricans migrants to USA had told me that is not necessary to speak english to go there, because the costarican community is big enough to live without that concern.

A major problem with any national English-only law would be a conflict with the New Mexico state constitution. Spanish is named as one of the two official languages of state government. Ballots, voter guides, the NM Statutes and all other citizen stuff is available in Spanish and has been since we got statehood in 1908.

There is a significant Spanish-only (or -mostly) -speaking population here whose ancestors came here up to 400 years ago, long before the US existed. They speak an antique form of the language that got preserved in isolation, like how Elizabethan English did in Appalachia. On average, they are more hostile to new Spanish-speaking arrivals than the Anglos are. Ran most of the Cubanos right off a few years ago.

By NewMexican (not verified) on 27 Oct 2009 #permalink

My great-grandparents would fall into that group of Wisconsinites you mentioned. I never figured out how Grossmama and Grosspapa, who were born in the US got through school. My grandparents spoke Enlish and German fluently. My older aunts and uncles speak a little German because they used it with their grandparents. My father as the youngest speaks a little pigeon German because the family didn't use it much after Grossmama and Grosspapa died. It's really only with my generation that German died out completely, although my older cousins might have studied it instead of French or Spanish in school.

Actually, it's not even really German that anyone spoke. Some people from my grandparent's generation decided to go visit "the old country" and discovered Germans didn't always understand them easily. Plus, the Germans spoke English.

I don't view being monlingual as a plus, but I can't say I'm terribly disapointed that I didn't learn German or Norwegian at home. I could have studied either language, but choose Spanish.

By katydid13 (not verified) on 27 Oct 2009 #permalink

Before World War Two, in the Pittsburgh area German kids spoke German, went to German school, attended German churches, flew the German flag, and read German newspapers which were printed locally. It was normal then for adults to be support the German-American Bund.

When the US went to war, the draft sent Germans to the Pacific Theater, and Germans learned to lower their profiles some, most of them.

By Nelson Muntz (not verified) on 27 Oct 2009 #permalink

It should be said that while some immigrant communities -- as in Greg's example of the Midwest -- retain the language, most don't. And that is what makes English-only proponents such nitwits.

Look at the Chinese-Americans. It takes a gigantic effort on their part to keep kids speaking Chinese and there is not one Chinese kid born in the US who speaks Chinese as what they call "L1" -- the one you mostly speak and think in. Why not? Because kids learn language from their peers as much as their parents. It is why 2nd-generation kids have no accents while their parents often do.

Or the Germans of Wisconsin (BTW, ever go to the Rathskeller at UW? There's a German inscription on the wall... The very term "Rathskeller" is German). It should be noted that English starts to replace German around the time that travel around the US becomes easy, and even the norm. We all forget that in 1945 it would take a whole two days to get from New York to Madison, WI, and even the 20th Century Limited took 20 hours to get to Chicago.

So communities could be relatively isolated, and stable, as you didn't have many people moving in and out. Of course, nowadays if you walk around many towns in the US, even relatively small ones the fascinating thing is how few people were born in the area.

That meant, of course, that you could retain German. Now, besides the Chinese, the only non-English speaking community in the US left is the Amish, I guess.

By the way, retaining a language as your first (L1) and everyday use are two very different things. While it is true a Russian could probably get around Brighton Beach pretty well without any English at all, that doesn't mean that you could call Brooklyn Russian-speaking, and it doesn't mean that most people speak Russian as their first language.

Generally speaking, the first generation born in the US has English as L1, with the second language the native tongue of the parents. By generation three most people have adopted English entirely -- very few people retain their old country tongue unless they are specifically educated to do so (as some Chinese communities do).

This even applies to Spanish speakers by the way. The kids born in the US might have varying skill levels of English (for instance, a kid who grows up in a crappy school system will not have certain skills) but English still ends up being their first language. Very few are native Spanish speakers. A community might use Spanish every day, but unless it is hermetically sealed the people born in LA will, like, speak English, dude.

The English only crowd assumes that people live in sealed-off communities with borders like North Korea. (They also seem to think that knowing a second language is a bad thing, which I can't figure out).

Jesse, you're forgetting the large Arab community in Dearborn, Michigan. Arabic is the primary language there.

In my case, my immigrant father elected not to teach either me or my brother any of his native language. I regard this as a shame because I would like to be able to communicate with the large family remaining there, but have so far only been able to master the simplest cases. Finnish being a language with 14 prepositional conjugations and optional pronouns hasn't helped that.

@edivimo #4

Here we have gringoss ghettos too, and besides the language, they consume only american products, and don't "mix" with the local population

Sounds like these people are missing out! I spent a few weeks in Costa Rica on a surf trip, right out of high school. I spoke pretty good Spanish, growing up near the MX boarder, and studying throughout my life (although these days it's pretty rusty). We made sure not to be all touristy, we tried to mix in as much as possible (only so possible) and we spoke no English other than to other travelers. I surely was not buying "American Products" (not even Coke, I drank Imperal and Pilsen exclusively). I even entered a bar after a night of partying, and knew everything about the beautiful bartender, and she knew my life story, but she didn't speak English! ALthough we did stay in one very "gringo" surf camp, but traveled each day to more secluded places (Like when our car broke down in the middle of a small town near Playa Negra)

One thing I have noticed is that some people think that speaking English with an accent doesn't "count" as speaking English. A lot of the professors at my university were immigrants, so naturally they had an accent. All but two spoke English very well, and I never had a problem understanding them. Some of my classmates would hear an accent, start to feel entitled, and just shut off their hearing, knowing that they can blame it on the teacher "not speaking English".

catgirl: No kidding. . that's almost a whole issue in and of itself. One can learn to hear the accent or one can stubbornly refuse to do so.

People seem to think their brains will become contaminated if they learn to understand accented speech.

My father's mother grew up in one of those Wisconsin towns where almost everyone was of German ancestry in the 1920s and 1930s. From what I can tell from her stories, German was still spoken as often as English up until World War II (a couple of her cousins actually served as translators for German POWs in the US). The public schools were pretty much all-English by the 1920s, but German was learned at home and in Lutheran Sunday schools. My grandmother was born during World War I, when there was a lot of anti-German sentiment in the US, and I've read that the pressure from that pushed even many German communities into using English more and adopting English-only teaching in public schools.

Un homme qui parle trois langues est trilingue.
Un homme qui parle deux langues est bilingue.
Un homme qui ne parle qu'une langue est anglais

By Kevin Sooley (not verified) on 28 Oct 2009 #permalink

But what about Americans who immigrate to places where English is not the main language? What do they do?

I've seen a lot of Americans in foreign lands who are capable of adapting the language of that particular place they've visit. Although, most of the people can speak English, despite the fact that it is a universal language, and through this, people of different countries understand each other well.

However, not all people limit themselves in learning English, they also study other language as well especially when they are traveling to various places or migrating to other countries.

It is better to have a knowledge of how to speak other languages than knowing only a single language.


By Chuck Norris (not verified) on 06 Nov 2009 #permalink

Yes, we have the same USAmerican ghettos here in small towns in Puerto Rico. Came to Rincon, to build a nuclear power plant, and stayed for the surfing and the tropical weather. That was back in the 60s and the vast majority after 40 years can not communicate a thought in Spanish. However, the local community has to cater their language needs, printing ads and signs in English and even a cultural newsletter in spanish has a section in English for them. Nevertheless their kids had assimilated the Puerto Rican culture and c an communicate easily in Spanish, and at home speak english with their parents, so the are truly bilinguals. They should not ask for things that they themselves wont do in the same situation. "If I move to another country I would learn the language" its been said a lot but the facts do not support this. I guess many people think that speaking english and other language will make them less american. Well the world is changing, and the USA will have to change also, wether we like or not. And if all the americans spoke English plus another language, that would be a real improvement, and maybe an end to the "ugly american" reality.

Well, sometimes you have a professor with an accent and a mumble-y sort of voice, and no one in the class understands more than a word or two.
Well, fortunately that only happened to me in a fencing class, and his demonstrations could be done quite well with very few words distinguishable. I don't think any of his students would have complained about his speaking limitations. We were in too much awe of his skills.

By Samantha Vimes (not verified) on 23 Nov 2009 #permalink

I am writing an opinion article for my college newspaper on why immigrants should not be forced to speak English. I found this article, along with the comments, to be very enlightening. Thanks!

Ola! Scienceblogs,
I take your point Learning English is no different than learning any new language. You do have to immerse yourself in the language, which means being in situations where those around you are speaking the language. You can go to a place where English is spoken most of the time, but you do need instruction in the language. Along with attending classes, there are online English classes you can take for free, which will give you extra instruction and practice. It takes more than just speaking and listening to help you learn English effectively.
All the Best

By rocket french (not verified) on 28 Oct 2011 #permalink

I'm and American, but my husband and I have had a second home in France since 1996. I had French in my American high school and college and I've worked very hard to perfect my French. I've been complimented many times on what beautiful French I speak-- by some French people. Others hear my accent (which I've tried and failed to get rid of) and just turn off anything I say. Still others, usually with strong regional accents themselves, really can't get what I'm saying. Then there are times when I'm completely baffled by some idiom I've never heard before. (And I read French magazines specifically looking for trendy idioms.)

Every time I hear an American say, why don't "they" learn English, I want to say, Why don't *you* go to another country and try learning *their* language? If you arrive as an adult, it simply isn't that easy, no matter how hard you work at it.

By hoary puccoon (not verified) on 29 Oct 2011 #permalink