Are You SURE Your Ancestors Learned English Quickly?

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 21, 2008 1 min read
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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?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.