Study: 19th century immigrants weren't always quick to learn to speak English

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

— An often-heard criticism of Spanish speakers is that they don't learn English as quickly as immigrants did in the 19th century.

A 2008 study at the UW-Madison shows that assumption to be false.

UW German professor Joseph Salmons teamed with Miranda Wilkerson of Western Illinois University to determine how quickly and how well European immigrants initially learned English.

They focused on German immigrants because they represented the biggest immigration wave to Wisconsin in the mid-1800s.

After researching census data, newspapers, books, court records and other materials, they discovered a remarkable reversal of conventional wisdom: Many early German immigrants did not feel compelled to learn English quickly. In fact, they appeared to live and thrive for decades while speaking exclusively German.

In many of the original settlements in the mid-1800s from southeastern Wisconsin to the Fox Valley, German remained the primary language of commerce, education and religion well into the early 20th century, Salmons found. Some second- and even third-generation Germans who were born in Wisconsin still spoke only German as adults.

"These folks were committed Americans," Salmons said. "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 lives in English."

After 50 or more years in the United States, many German speakers in some communities continued to speak only German, he said.

The study shows that early immigrants did not need English to succeed, so they responded slowly to learning it. Modern immigrants, however, recognize it as a ticket to success and are learning English in high percentages, Salmons reported.

"In the past, it was possible to go a couple of generations without learning English," he said. "It was not an impediment. Today, immigrants have no misunderstanding about the value of learning English, especially for economic advancement.

"Even in places with huge Spanish-speaking populations, they are doing everything they can to learn English," he said. "If they are not, they are working 12 or 15 hours a day and don't have the opportunities."

Last updated: 1:36 pm Thursday, December 20, 2012

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