A newly published study done by Miranda Wilkerson (a recent UW-Madison Ph.D. in German who does second language acquisition) and former MKI Director and Professor of German, Joe Salmons, has gained national and international attention for questioning the myth that all early immigrants immediately learned English. Their article "Good old immigrants of yesteryear' who didn't learn English" appears in vol. 83, pp. 259-283, of American Speech. The following is an excerpt from an article in the Madison Capitol Times (10/18/2008):
Joseph Salmons has always been struck by a frequent argument in letters to the editor, national debates and in just plain old conversations: "My great, great grandparents came to America and quickly learned English to survive. Why can't today's immigrants do the same?" With "English-only" movements cropping up and debate growing about how quickly new Spanish-speaking immigrants should learn English, the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of German decided the issue was important enough to look more deeply into the past.
Focusing on German immigrants was a logical choice, Salmons said, since they represented the biggest immigration wave to Wisconsin in the mid-1800s, "and they really fit this classic view of the 'good old immigrants' of the 19th century." In many of the original German settlements in the mid-1800s from southeastern Wisconsin to Lake Winnebago and the Fox Valley, the researchers found that German remained the primary language of commerce, education and religion well into the early 20th century. Some second- and even third-generation German immigrants who were born in Wisconsin still spoke only German as adults. "These folks were committed Americans," said Salmons. "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."
"This finding provides striking counterevidence to the claim that early immigrants learned English quickly." [The authors] also found, surprisingly, that people in contact with the Germans learned to speak German as well. In Ozaukee County, for instance, there was evidence that Irish families who lived scattered among Germans could speak German.
According to Salmons, the study suggests that conventional wisdom may actually have it backwards -- while early immigrants didn't necessarily need English to succeed and responded slowly, modern immigrants recognize it as a ticket to success and are learning English in faster than was done in the olden days.