The following is the text of my presentation at a panel discussion entitled "Is Spanish the New German?" at the Fond du Lac Public Library as part of the "Hola!" series. (January 2009)
We hear a lot of talk about unprecedented influx of immigrants, along with unprecedented challenges of assimilation and linguistic adaptation. I want to start by challenging the idea that our challenges are in fact new or unprecedented.
Having a lot of immigrants is not new.
In fact, in absolute numbers our foreign-born population today is about half what it was around 1890, when it peaked at over half a million residents. In percentage terms, in 1850, the foreign-born were 36% of the population. Currently there are about 250,000 foreign-born in Wisconsin -- less than 5% of the population. (Population Notes, vol. 2, issue 4)
Having a lot of immigrants from one country or ethnic group is not new.
In 1900, German-born residents constituted about half of all foreign-born residents of WI. About 34% of WI’s population was either German-born or of German descent. The percentage was much higher in some eastern parts of the state. (B. Peterson, pers. comm.)
That many of these immigrants do not speak English well or at all is not new.
In 1850, Minnesota’s sample ballot was printed in eight languages. (League of Women Voters, Immigration Study Packet, 2007)
There was a time, well into the 20th century, when a salesperson for a farm implement dealer or input supplier in much of Eastern WI needed to speak German to be successful.
That the private and public sectors both have reasons to accommodate non-English speakers is not new.
Just as farm input suppliers offered service in German, so did government agencies. There are people alive today whose deed to their Wisconsin farm is in German. (L. Heimerl, pers. comm.)
The Union forces in the Civil War had entire regiments that were commanded largely in German! (B. Peterson, pers. comm..)
That some immigrants resist learning or speaking English continue to work and learn in their native language is not new.
As late as the 1950s there were German speaking schools in Wisconsin supported by parents who did not want their children to lose their language or their culture.
In the late 1800s (?) there were at least 4 daily papers in German published in Milwaukee alone! There were other German papers throughout the state.
For Wisconsin and Missouri Synod German Lutherans, speaking the language of Martin Luther was a matter of faith as well as culture, and many parishes had their own schools to make sure their children were learning German. Milwaukee had many “ethnic” Catholic parishes, not just German, each with its own language and favorite saints. Many public schools taught German, by popular demand. (B. Peterson, pers. comm.)
An 1870 article in the New York Times reported that “The German General School Association, which, about a year since, was formed with a view of agitating for the introduction of the German language in the public schools as a branch of instruction, held a meeting, last evening at Liederkranz Hall…” (NYT, Oct. 20, 1870)
That immigrants seeking to hold on to their language and culture face social and political obstacles to doing so is not new.
Those meeting in Liederkranz Hall evidently had a rather testy discussion of why they weren’t getting further in their efforts and how they might meet with a better reception. One suggestion was to branch out and welcome other ethnic and linguistic groups to join them to create a larger constituency for school reforms. Multicultural education a la 1870!
That many people are alarmed by what they see as the likelihood of linguistic and cultural erosion and the possible failure of new immigrants to is not new.
In 1900, there was considerable alarm among some native-born residents that our culture and language would be eroded by all the Germans who had come.
Back in the 1920s when a daily paper in Milwaukee tried to publish a weekly supplement in Norwegian, it received so many threatening letters and subscription cancellations that the newspaper abandoned the supplement.
That some people question the political, cultural and linguistic loyalties of immigrants is not new.
German immigrants got lumped into the general category of “foreign agitators and anarchists” during the political turmoil of the late 1800s, and were largely blamed for the Haymarket murders in Chicago in 1886. Our post-9/11 “Freedom Fries” find their echo in WWI’s “Liberty Cabbage” (ie. sauerkraut).
Germans, like Hispanics more recently, have also sought to prove their loyalty. They too translated the American national anthem into German in the mid-1800s in a version with strong folk roots that continued to be sung for decades. In 1917, during World War I, novelist Booth Tarkington and other prominent citizens of Indianapolis brought a petition protesting the fact that, in the bilingual public schools of their city, the Star Spangled Banner was being sung in German translation. (Frances Ellis, "German Instruction in the Public Schools of Indianapolis, 1869-1919. Indiana Magazine of History 50 (1954): 372, cited by B. Peterson).
The point I want to make here is, today’s immigration realities and linguistic challenges are in no way unprecedented, and neither are people’s fears about them.
It seems laughable today to think of Norwegians and Germans as a worrisome cultural threat, but to many they seemed so at the time. Now Old World Wisconsin and Setende Mai and brat fries celebrate the very cultures that were often viewed with suspicion and hostility when they first arrived.
Let’s look at some of those fears, and let’s see what the data says about today’s crop of immigrants.
“They don’t want to learn English”
By an overwhelming margin (92%), Latinos say it is very important that English be taught to children of immigrant families. In fact, their commitment to this idea is greater than that of non-Hispanic whites --87% of whom agree that it is very important that English be taught to children of immigrant families.
As telling, perhaps, is a look at how many people said teaching English to immigrant children is not important. Among Latinos, only 2% held this view compared to 27% of non-Latinos.
(Pew Hispanic Center/Kaiser Family Foundation National Survey of Latinos: Education.)
“Everywhere I go I see signs in Spanish, labels in Spanish, forms in Spanish – they won’t learn English that way!
A Pew Hispanic Center survey of Hispanic adults revealed that about 47% spoke primarily Spanish, about a fourth were bilingual, and about one fourth were English dominant. (Pew Hispanic Center, March 2004) The perception of many English speakers that Hispanic immigrants are not learning English arises to a significant degree because the continuing influx of immigrants means that there is always a new cohort that speaks virtually no English. A population of immigrants that does not speak English may persist indefinitely mainly because it is being continually replenished by new arrivals. It is less a reflection of older arrivals failing to learn English, though many immigrants who arrive as adults will never become fluent in their new language.
Because Fond du Lac County lacks the long-term Hispanic presence that many larger cities have, it is likely that the Pew statistics understate the Spanish-dominance of our local Hispanic population. Most came within the last decade and many have not been in the U.S. long enough to achieve competence in English.
In general today’s Hispanic immigrants are following the pattern of earlier waves of immigrants. Typically, a high percentage of the members of the first generation who work outside the home become functional in English within about a decade. Those who stay in the home, typically women, may attain a lower level of competence. Their children, however, typically speak English better than their native language by the time they finish high school, and their children – the third generation, are almost always English dominant and may not speak their grandparents’ and parents’ first language at all. (There are local exceptions to this, such as in parts of Texas, California and Florida where Spanish speakers may be the dominant linguistic group, but these conditions do not pertain to Fond du Lac County.)
Studies show that it takes most ELL students 7-10 years to achieve roughly grade level proficiency in academic English. Most ELL children sound conversationally proficient within a couple of years, but this masks shallow vocabularies. (Suarez-Orozco, Learning a New Land).
Nationwide, Mexicans have among the lowest levels of high school graduation and college attendance of any group. However, this may understate their academic attainments if parental education and income are taken into account. Second generation Mexican children, about one third of whom grow up living below the federal poverty level, usually exceed their parents’ level of education, frequently by a large margin.
What are some ways in which today’s Hispanic immigrants and the circumstances they face differ from earlier waves of immigration, and how might this affect assimilation, linguistic and otherwise?
Today’s Hispanic immigrants are mostly less educated than the average German immigrant was. A significant minority is highly educated, possessing advanced degrees or special skills. They may or may not find their credentials recognized by employers, however.
If Hispanic immigrants express great commitment to learning English and ensuring that their children learn it in school, nevertheless many parents are challenged to support their children’s linguistic development given their own limited education. On average, Hispanic children suffer a significant “achievement gap” in school compared with their white, native-born counterparts.
Today’s Hispanic immigrants face a far more restrictive immigration policy than was historically applied to Germans. Because the US in recent years has annually offered only 5000 visas for unskilled workers when the economy has generated roughly half a million low-skill jobs per year, many Hispanic workers have chosen to come illegally to get the jobs they know exist. Their undocumented status impedes assimilation on many levels, and in my experience correlates significantly with a failure to invest in learning English.
Today’s Hispanic immigrants – like all immigrants and native born Americans – face a very different economy than that found by earlier waves of immigrants. Gone are the opportunities to claim a homestead and farm with little start-up capital. Gone are many of the high-paying, low-skill factory jobs that propelled many European immigrants into the middle class. Today’s immigrants, as well as low-skill, less educated native-born, mainly have access to jobs that will not lead to economic security or social advancement in the short to medium term.