Saturday, May 15, 2010

English Only? When Was That?

From a recent Facebook exchange, the first person shall remain anonymous:

"That is great, HELLO, we live in USA. English is the language here, so its time to force the people to learn the language."

My reply:

My great great grandparents arrived at the South Street Seaport in New York in 1849 as stowaways on a boat from Danzig. They were fleeing the collapse of the 1848 German Revolution and violent reprisals by the Junker landlords. They were 19 years old, unmarried, with an infant son. They had nothing like papers on them when they arrived. They never learned English, and neither did their infant son, who started a farm in Illinois in 1870. He read the Bible in German, and the German language papers from Chicago and Saint Louis all his life. My grandfather spoke German at home and English at school, just like a lot of the students I teach now speak one language at home and English at school. They all either know English, or want to learn it. Why punish them or their parents? (or OUR parents as the case may be).
The USA was never English only. Just ask General Lafayette. If he's not available, ask General Von Steuben. And if he's not in, there's always General Kosciusko. There's always the Louisiana Cajuns, the Pennsylvania Dutch, and the Lakota and the Cherokee might have other ideas about English being the native language. The oldest families in Texas and California all speak Spanish.

I think the real issue is, dare I say it?, color.

My Great Grandparents and their children in Altamont, Illinois in 1910. In the front center are my Great Grandfather John Schumacher with Great Grandmother Bertha Klitzing from Pomerania. My Grandfather Harry is to the right on the front row next to Great Grandmother. Great Grandfather John was the infant son who arrived with those 19 year old stowaways in 1849, along with thousands of other German refugees.
To my knowledge, Great Great Grandparents and Great Grandparents never learned English. But they Anglicized their first names (Great Great Grandfather Wilhelm became William), and I'm sure they encouraged their children to learn English.

My students have similar stories. No one doesn't want to learn English. English is necessary for employment and success in this country. In my experience, the kids learn English very quickly and sometimes the parents never do. That was the case with my family. For this reason, multi-lingualism is here to stay. Businesses and governments have to be able to communicate with people to do their jobs. That's why the bank ATMs in many parts of New York give you a choice of languages, anywhere from 3 to a dozen languages. That's why U.S. Army recruitment posters in very Korean Woodbridge in Queens are printed in Korean. That's why the police, fire department, and hospitals have entire staffs of translators in scores of languages.


JayV said...

When I was growing up in New Hampshire, my brothers and I had a friend who acted as our surrogate grandmother. "Grandma Rose" was a Vermonter, a teacher/cook by profession. In the early 1900s she and her husband were homesteaders out west near Casper, Wyo., where they lived in a sod hut and she taught school. The majority of the kids were from German immigrant families. And like your current students, they spoke their first language at home. Rose didn't speak German, but was able to teach the students English. Even after she retired back in New Hampshire, she received letters from former students, thanking her for their education with her and for teaching them English.

JCF said...


Pennsylvania (where I did my doctoral research on religion) was OFFICIALLY BILINGUAL (English & German on ALL State documents) until almost the end of 19th century.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Amen, dear Brother!

In 17th century Sweden it took 3 generations to become really Swedish, though what counted was allegiance to the Crown! Often 1st generation immigrants ended up in Parlianment, or even the Senate, after a few years.

Only after 1809 was the calling of Government ministers out of 1st generation immigrants made inconstitutional! But still, some served in the 2 Chamber Parliament of the day.

And their family papers show the development: it took 3 generations before family papers were in Swedish only. And, on is permitted to suspect that, as usual the ladies learnt the language the last...

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

With late Modernity and a working class immigration (active recruiting in Italy and Greece by big companies) this has changed, of course...

MaryO said...

The point about emergency services is well-taken. I work at a law firm that helps battered women, and at least one Spanish-speaking woman called the police to report her batterer--only to have English-speaking officers come and be told by the English-speaking abuser, "Oh, there's nothing wrong--she doesn't speak English." I don't believe she is the only person who has suffered this. (Now, why the police didn't call for a Spanish speaker is beyond me..)