Monday, October 20, 2008

Good old immigrants of 'yesteryear' who didn't learn English

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.

The Lusitania Effect

Join us on Thursday, October 23rd, at the Memorial Union (Tripp Commons) in Madison for the first in a series of events celebrating the MKI's 25th anniversary. A guest lecture will be held by Professor Emeritus of German, Frank Trommler, University of Pennsylvania, followed by a reception. The title of Professor Trommlers talk is:

The Lusitania Effect: German Propaganda and German Identity in World War I

Next to the Titanic no other sinking of a ship has preoccupied so many journalists and historians than that of the British ocean liner Lusitania which was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1915. The assault – which took the lives of 128 Americans – caused a rapid deterioration of American-German relations long before Wilson's declaration of war against the German Reich in 1917. It curtailed German propaganda for American neutrality and generated a new attitude of suspicion against German Americans which ballooned into an anti-German hysteria. Trommler discusses this development first in the context of other violent incidents that led to American military engagement in the 20 th century and then explores the deeper roots of the fast spreading confrontation with the German Americans, the largest ethnic group in the U.S. He analyzes the role of culture in the identity struggle of a nation of diverse interests, ethnicities and belief systems and defines the intensity of the fight against German culture – which surprised even critics of Germany – as part of the mobilization for war. Examining the anti-German campaign in light of the struggle for national unity, Trommler points to a larger contest in which American elites, most prominently John Dewey and Randolphe Bourne, used this confrontation for defining the specifics of an American mission, American culture, and the uses of the war.