A project of the Center for Community Change

New Study Shows Immigrants are Learning English Faster than their Predecessors

english-onlyI have posted before about the rabid English-only campaigns that have become all the rage in certain parts of the country. From attempts to abolish bilingual  or ethnic education, to attempts to try to make english the official language of the United States (which has no official language), it seems like nativists and the anti-immigrant extremists are convinced that today’s immigrants refuse to learn English, or are learning it more slowly than the immigrants who came through Ellis Island.

Well, Joseph Salmons, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has done a study that turns that idea upside-down.

Salmons says their 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 extremely high percentages.

He studied the history of German immigrants and found that today’s immigrants are learning English at a markedly faster rate. Did you hear that, fear-mongerors? Immigrants are learning English, and quickly. There are no hoards of foreigners threatening to abolish the good old English language here in the US of A. So please, calm down.

One of the remarkable findings in the census was that being a German-only speaker “did not act as a barrier to opportunity in the work force,” says Salmons. While they expected to find these people on the fringes of the mainstream economy, instead they found a wide range of occupations represented, including teachers, clergymen, retail merchants, blacksmiths, tailors, yard foremen and surveyors, in addition to farmers and laborers.

“The key issue seemed to be whether they had a big enough German-speaking community, where they had a critical mass for people to be comfortable being monolingual,” Salmons says. “There was no huge pressure to change in those communities.”

The look at century-old language patterns seems especially salient in the modern political culture, where “English-only” movements are cropping up everywhere and there is considerable debate about how quickly new Spanish-speaking immigrants should be assimilating a new language.

As evidence of how heated the rhetoric has become, the paper references a 2006 comment from popular talk show host Michael Reagan, who stated that “hordes of immigrants … are chattering away in their native language and have no intention of learning English.”

Adds Reagan: “Can you blame them? They are being enabled by all those diversity fanatics to defy the age-old custom of immigrants to our shores who made it one of their first priorities to learn to speak English and to teach their offspring to do likewise. It was a case of sink or swim.”

Salmons says their 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 extremely high percentages.

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