Did my German ancestors really need to know that much English?
December 7, 2011 3:19 PM   Subscribe

Do immigrants need a higher level of proficiency in English to get along in the world today than our ancestors did when they immigrated?

It seems like lately I've heard a lot of people complaining about things like having people translate food stamp applications into different languages or providing English as a Second Language services in schools. They say that since their ancestors came over and learned English without any fancy help, that today's immigrants should do the same.

I believe that people today need a better understanding of English to be in school, to access government programs, and to get along in the world. I already know about the difference between BICS and CALP, and I'm looking for more information that either proves that a conversational level of fluency in English isn't enough to really get along in America, or that talks about the average level of English fluency that was needed a hundred or two hundred years ago. Or, if I'm totally off base and all of my ancestors were fluent in English within three months, I guess I'd like to see proof of that as well.

Any input would be appreciated. Thanks!
posted by christinetheslp to Education (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Depends on the geographical area and concentration of immigrants from the same place, but my childhood church printed bulletins in German before WWI. Not sure how hard the proof needs to be and if you're looking for community or governmental accomodation?
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:40 PM on December 7, 2011

Two things to note:

There are differences in what needs to be interpreted and into which languages. You might fine significant variation driven by state requirements.

Also, it would be interesting to know if there's been a shift in who provides the translation. My great-grandfather couldn't read in English. One of his granddaughters accompanied him when he needed someone to read an English language document. It wouldn't have occurred to him to ask for a document in one of the 3 languages he could read.

That seemed to be a pretty common approach from the immigrants in my family. Most of them were sponsored by a family member and that person helped them until they got on their feet.
posted by 26.2 at 3:42 PM on December 7, 2011

A recent NY Times article suggests, in some cases, an opposite view: "success" without mastering English. I suppose it depends upon what "get along in the world" means.
posted by gyusan at 3:46 PM on December 7, 2011

Funnily enough this question (they phrased it as "language assimilation" and "cultural assimilation") was one of the concerns of early American sociologists. There's a famous book, Robert Park's The Immigrant Press and Its Controls, which went into the arguments for and against immigrants using languages other than English from a social point of view.

The short story is that he found that the larger and more socially cohesive the immigrant group (especially Germans, Eastern European Jews, and Russians, in big cities like Chicago and NYC) the more likely it was to propagate so-called American ideals in its own language press and provide social assistance. This was in the 1920s, well before the institutions of the modern welfare State which as you say require specific language skills.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:51 PM on December 7, 2011

I shouldn't think so. There is a famous rant by none other than Benjamin Franklin concerning the "swarthy" German immigrants who
"as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it…I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties".
Point is, this nonsense has a long history.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:56 PM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't have time to look up links, but in history museums it's pretty standard scholarship-based interpretation that no, immigrants did not speak better English or learn English faster than immigrants today, that second-generation children born here continued to do a large amount of translating/intermediary work for parents, and that there were dozens of societies developed at the turn of the 20th century to push English language skills and other Americanization content because of a widespread concern about immigrants not being well integrated with American society (even very pointed fear and concern about them being socialists, monarchists, violent anarchists, etc, representing political movements in Europe that americans found threatening).
posted by Miko at 4:07 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here, quickly, Google Books sources to 1930 on the DAR Manual for Immigrants, published in several languages starting in 1911.
posted by Miko at 4:13 PM on December 7, 2011

One thing to note is that literacy rates in general have improved in the us over the past 100 years. So not only could a lot of immigrants not read english, but a lot of native-born americans couldn't read english, either.

And the level of sophistication that's required to be considered 'literate' has gone up a great deal.
posted by empath at 4:14 PM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

the average level of English fluency that was needed a hundred or two hundred years ago

But they didn't need it; it was a minimal requirement, totally optional. My great grandparents lived in a Yiddish speaking ghetto on the Lower East Side. They read Yiddish newspapers. They went to Yiddish theatre. They spoke Yiddish at home; the kids (my grandparents) spoke English at school. My dad speaks Yiddish because his bubby spoke no English at all; therefore, he was raised in a dual-language household so all the kids could speak to the grandma who lived with them.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:14 PM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been doing some research on this very topic. The short answer is: no. Frederick Jackson Turner commented in the 1890s that there was a strip from Pennsylvannia to South Carolina where you could get by only speaking German. A fair number of states with constitutions written in the mid 19th century required all laws to be written in either English and Spanish (CA and NM); English and French(LA and ME); or English, Spanish, and German (CO) so that the populace could understand them.

PBS has a useful summary of the history of bilingual education here. Also, I like James Crawford's writing on the subject: Language Freedom and Restriction.

Also, the ability to speak English did not become a requirement for American citizenship until the Naturalization Act of 1906.
posted by colfax at 4:17 PM on December 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've got to agree with DarlingBri, that learning English was & is optional, depending on the individual immigrant's specific circumstances. The immigrants who gather in tight communities of their fellows may have a better 'old-country' social support network, but the ones who strike out on their own assimilate more.

Three of my grandparents came here as German-speakers: all learned English, but at varying levels. My maternal grandmother arrived as a teenager in 1901, completely on her own, learned English relatively quickly on the job, married an English-only-speaker and basically dropped the German language entirely.

My paternal grandparents arrived as a couple in 1931: my grandfather learned English well, my grandmother not so much, and they continued to use German at home throughout their lives. Unlike my maternal grandmother, they lived in an enclave of German immigrants, where it was possible to have a full work & social life without much (or even no) English. My grandfather learned more English because his jobs drew him out of that enclave more than my homemaker grandmother.
posted by easily confused at 4:40 PM on December 7, 2011

My great-grandparents from Lithuania lived in the US from 1902 (at least, we think that's when they came over) through when they died in the 1950s, and neither ever spoke even passable English, per testimony from my (Irish) great-aunt who visited them in the hospital in NYC in the 1950s, and Census lists have them claiming they spoke Russian at home. Their sons - my grandfather and his brothers - all spoke English, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian (Grandpa had a real head for languages and was briefly an interpreter between the Italian-speaking guards and English-speaking prisoners in his POW camp in Spain.) The third and fourth generations are all English speakers only, though I (fourth generation) did take Russian in college. There was some generation stretching out - my grandfather didn't have kids until his late 30s - so there was minimal contact between the no-English generation and their English-only grandchildren.

My grandfather indicated that you could function in his immediate neighborhood without knowing English, though nearly everyone was at least dual-lingual, and my great-grandmother shared a mystery language (no one wrote down what it was) with an Italian woman from a block away. We know the family was extremely socially active (cantors in the synagogue, taking educational classes at the 92nd Street Y, etc.) and the language thing never seemed to get in the way of anything. Then again, I don't know how much English you'd need to e.g., work in a foundry (my great-grandpa's job in 1920.) I do know they successfully did things like fill out draft cards, register for Social Security, and get matters handled in court. Great-grandpa even managed to tell the draft board about an injury he had (since the boards are local, I assume this was from a conversation in Russian or Yiddish.)

And today the signage for the entire block (of the tenement they lived in the longest) is in Korean, as far as I can tell from Google Street View.

(All of the men in the family were definitely literate in at least one language, but this is not surprising given the culture they came from. However, until the second US-born generation got around to it in the 1960s and 1970s, no one graduated high school. Society was far more loosely structured in the first half of the century.)
posted by SMPA at 5:00 PM on December 7, 2011

Wikipedia has a picture of the flyer for Haymarket Square demonstration, which is in English and German. I don't know enough about the labor movement or immigration patterns in Chicago to know if that was because the target audience were mostly German or if other ethnic groups would have been able to read it in English. (I mean, depending on who immigrated when, the target audience could have been all German and Irish, but I would have expected there to be Italians by then.)

This website puts a lot of emphasis on assimilation and accompanying language loss, but does note that Pennsylvania and Ohio explicitly allowed German-language schools.
posted by hoyland at 5:10 PM on December 7, 2011

Oh, also in the mid-19th century Ohio, Maryland, Louisiana, New Mexico, Pennsylvannia, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Texas had laws requiring bilingual education in schools. Those laws all got demolished at the end of the century. There could be other states that had similar laws, but I haven't finished my research yet so I don't know for sure.
posted by colfax at 5:28 PM on December 7, 2011

My [ex]wife was an immigrant for several years.
Although her proficiency in English was very decent, she sufffered a LOT.
This was because of cultural nuances and differences. She had trouble understanding
jokes, or cultural traditions/norms, and language does not help in those areas.

Just an example: "have a good one". This might be so easy, natural for you to understand,
but if you literally translate that, it might not map to having a good day. This little things
are what makes or breaks a person's feeling of truly understanding and feeling "part of" the group he/she is communicating with.

So I would say that english proficieny is a must, yes, but cultural immersion, understanding
of idiomatic expressions, slang, and how language and culture blend together are as equal or more important.
posted by theKik at 5:36 PM on December 7, 2011

My family history has a ton of non-English speaking immigrants. My grandmother immigrated with her parents in the 20s. They came from Spain and ended up in Newark, NJ. My grandmother was a child when she came over, so her English was fine, but my great grandparents never spoke English with any fluency, and they lived the rest of their lives here. They had no need to speak English, their neighborhood was entirely Spanish-speaking, and any time they had to interact with government officials they brought one of their children, or later, my father, with them to translate.
posted by crankylex at 6:48 PM on December 7, 2011

My great-grandma immigrated in her 20s (in 1915) and never learned English in the 70 years she lived in California. Her kids learned English at school and they helped manage most of the affairs of the family farm from a young age.

My in-laws all moved here at about the same age, in the mid 1970s, and they all speak pretty good English. They had to in order to pursue the careers they wanted to pursue.
posted by troublesome at 8:20 PM on December 7, 2011

I think you've missed the point. There is an exercise in curiosity here, yes, but it originated as a throwaway line thought up by someone with an axe to grind, and in that context, the reality Just Doesn't Matter. Worse than that actually, you're conceding the point to them:

First problem: They didn't come to their views because of this argument, they made up this argument because of their views. So the point they made is not really an argument, in that even if you were to conclusively prove it wrong, it would make no difference to their view of matter. It's really just a wild goose chase.

Second problem: A wild goose chase like this takes 5 seconds for someone to make up, and hours for someone like you to get to the bottom of it. And at last, when you succeed, thinking you've shed light instead of heat, the only thing you've really done is created a few hours in which time the person can generate another 20 wild goose chases.

If you get fooled into chasing the goose like this, you actually strengthen the position you don't think is accurate.

To use an airforce metaphor, the way out is to ignore the flares and chafe being thrown out to distract you, and keep homing in on the aircraft - the meat of the problem. In anything immigration related, "English skills" are never the aircraft.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:00 AM on December 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

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