When you talk to people who are against immigration, do you ever hear this? “My great, great grandparents came to America and quickly learned English to survive. Why can’t today?s immigrants do the same?” It turns out this isn’t true.

Researcher Joseph Salmons, who has studied European immigrant languages in the Midwest, discovered that little research had been done about how quickly past immigrants learned their adopted country?s language.

Today’s critics are talking about immigrants from Mexico, but he and fellow researcher Miranda Wilkerson looked at census data, newspapers, books, court records and other materials to help document the linguistic experience of German immigrants in Wisconsin from 1839 to the 1930s. They focused on German immigrants because they represented the biggest immigration wave to Wisconsin in the mid-1800s and, says Salmons, “They really fit this classic view of the ‘good old immigrants’ of the 19th century.” Surely if ANYBODY did it right, it would have been them!

What Salmons and Wilkerson found was a remarkable reversal of conventional wisdom: Not only did many early immigrants not feel compelled to learn English quickly upon arriving in America, they appeared to live and thrive for decades while speaking exclusively German.

Salmons says, “What this means for the learning (or non-learning) of English here is telling: after 50 or more years of living in the United States, many speakers in some communities remained monolingual. This finding provides striking counterevidence to the claim that early immigrants learned English quickly.

“These folks were committed Americans. They participated in politics, in the economy, and were leaders in their churches and their schools. They just happened not to conduct much of their life in English.” Was it the same for your ancestors?Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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