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Are You SURE Your Ancestors Learned English Quickly?


Some immigrant groups to the United States might not have learned English as quickly as their descendants claim they did, according to an interesting study by a German professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Hat tip to ESOL World News.)

Joseph Salmons, the German professor, and Miranda Wilkerson, a recent Ph.D. graduate in German from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, decided to look closer at a common refrain that appears in letters to newspaper editors or surfaces in current debates about immigration, writes Brian Mattmiller in an Oct. 16 article put out by the university's public relations department.

The refrain is: "My great-great-grandparents came to America and quickly learned English to survive. Why can't today's immigrants do the same?"

The researchers dug through census data, court records, newspapers, and other materials to get to the bottom of whether the refrain is true. Mr. Mattmiller writes:

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

So I put the question to those of you who make a similar claim on this blog from time to time that immigrants today aren't learning English as quickly as immigrants who arrived in this country more than a century ago: Can you show us documentation of that claim?


Hi Mary Ann,

I'm sure a lot of us will check back periodically to see if anyone takes you up on your challenge. Can we limit the ground rules to published research instead of anecdotes?

...and thanks for the hat tip!

Respondents should also make a clear distinction between "everyday" English (shopping, social talk over the fence, even workplace conversations when the person is in his or her common place of business) vs. academic English required to be successful in school or even communicate on a level playing field with school personnel (as parents must do with teachers and administrators).

It really depends on how old the grandparents/great-grandparents in question were. Are we talking about adults or children? I believe immigrants of all ethnic groups depend on their children to learn the native language and deal with the outside world because it's neurologically easier for children to learn new languages. The existence of Germantown and Chinatown and Little Italy-type neighborhoods supports the fact that it was possible to get along in the right areas with very little English.

My grandfather (1st generation American) has told me stories about his parents speaking Swedish to each other so the children couldn't understand them. They (his parents) were both bilingual, but they didn't allow their American kids to learn Swedish.

My great-great grandfather and grandmother immigrated to Wisconsin in 1848. A century later I remember their grandson, my paternal grandfather, speaking German with his wife in my presence.

My mother (80 yrs young)spoke only Spanish when she entered first grade in a small Oregon town. By second grade she was at a reading level with her classmates. Her mother spoke primarily Spanish until she passed away at age 84.
The difference was that mom was put in the position of being forced to learn English and grandma was sheltered at home with others to speak for her in public, learning just enough to get by in the grocery store.
Mom's experience was also unique in that theirs was the only hispanic family in town and learning the language was necessary to get by. Traditionally when immigrants enter the country they move in to neighborhoods that reflect thier culture. That is why Chinatown, Germantown and Italian neighborhoods exist in cities. Immigrants that move into neighborhoods that reflect thier culture are not motivated to learn english because they can function in thier neighborhood without.
Obviously this ancedote does not reflect a typical or ideal situation, but worked in this incidence.
So the question remains, what is the best approach for children?
This is not a problem that has a universal solution, but should be evaluated based on student need.
I'd promote integrating them in to the classroom, but I believe that different approaches, and different levels of ESL help applies to different areas. Integrate the kids first and then help them out if they can't thrive.

What a great topic. I have this conversation with my mom every once in awhile, when she makes a blanket statement about Latinos who come here and don't want to learn English. When I ask her where her evidence for this claim is, she'll cite some isolated news story. I find it ironic coming from her, given the stories I have heard over the years about her paternal grandmother, a Polish immigrant, who never spoke English a day in her life (and she lived in the U.S. a very long time). But this post asked for research, not anecdotes. I haven't seen any research specifically on language, but there was a recent study on rates of assimilation for immigrants over the past century. It is a complex analysis that involves a lot of characteristics, one of which is language. An overall conclusion of the research, conducted by the Manhattan Institute of all places, is that current immigrants are assimilating more quickly than their predecessors, though rates of assimilation vary by country of origin, not surprisingly. See http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_53.htm

Hola Mary Ann! Here is a Personal source for your research question :)!

Your question is good, and perhaps going to the research placed by the leaders in Bilingual and Dual Language education could give insights into learning a second language well.
I myself have been learning English since 1970, at the age of 25. First I took private lessons, then went into business with the public, many Americans being great at trying to understand my initial "Social level English". I have had a great time before going back to formal education. It was not until 1992 that I began to take formal English as an adult in NOVA, Virginia. Then, in 2002 I began to take classes to become a Bilingual teacher for dual language programs in New Mexico, with Highlands University and SFCC in Santa Fe. I still feel I have to study, read and learn constantly my second language, but after the formalized education I feel more confident in it. Since I also teach Spanish at the College level, I have also learned English from two language perspectives, plus the duality of grammar structures that are somehow more similar. If I were to come from Chinese or other highly different form of language, perhaps my perspective would be different.
I also had a high level of education when I came to the US, and have been blessed with the love for learning in both languages. My children are also bilingual and now we are trying with my grandchildren.
THE WORLD IS ROUND and we diminish ourselves when we limit our learning to only one language. Studies also show that great harm can be done from a socio-psychological perspective to people when forced to learn a language while ignoring their own, and family communication also breaks down. This theme however is fairly more complex and requires a deeper understanding of the interactions among language and culture.
So, learning a second language is not easy, takes time, a loving attitude to the learning and great teachers!
I hope that this stimulates your readers, and happy learning to you regarding Spanish!

What a heated topic this can become (and already is for many). I think it's refreshing to hear intelligent perspectives on this issue of people (key note here is the word people who have hearts, minds, and souls) coming to our country of opportunity and how they acquire language skills in English.

Such negative feelings can prevail about this issue, but as so many have pointed out in posts above this one, becoming bilingual - truly conversationally bilingual and biliterate - is a long process and one that should be filled with positive experiences and feedback and success.

Can every person reading this truly say they have helped every non-English speaking person 150% every time they encountered a communication challenge? I thank those who have posted with heart and feelings.

The mentality of English-only is gone - it has to be. Embrace this round world as one has already said, and open your minds and hearts. As these immigrants are surrounded by their native language surely they feel a need to hold onto that language, the culture surrounding it, and thus feeding into our USA more layers of life!

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