Don't lose sleep over immigrants' English

August 08, 2014|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Earlier today, before I turned her off in mid-sentence, a pleasant woman on the radio who was trying not to sound bigoted was saying that immigrants in her family from Norway and Poland and elsewhere didn't arrive in this country expecting everyone to be able to speak Norwegian or Polish ... 

Robert Lane Grreen, writing in The Economist's Johnson blog, points out, "In the traditional story, immigrants back in the good old days wanted to, and did in fact, learn English. But this is not really so." 

It is sad that Americans, as a people, are so ignorant about our own history. English is the dominant language today and has always been the dominant language of the United States, but it has never been the only one. 

Because we have had many immigrants, and because it is very difficult to become fluent in a new language in adulthood, there have always been pockets of minority language. 

German immigrants, the Johnson post points out, tended to hold on to their language for a long time. Maryland had German schools in the nineteeth century and into the twentieth.

New York City's Yiddish-speaking population supported thriving theaters from the 1880s into the 1920s. Anyone who has walked through a city's Chinatown is aware of the robust survival of immigrants' languages. 

This is normal. This has always been normal, throughout the history of the Republic. 

And the reason not to get agitated is that, because English remains the dominant language in American culture, there is always incentive for immigrants, and particularly their children, to master it. 

Alarmists about Spanish-speaking immigrants would do well to heed a 2009 post in Language Log that refers to research, empirical evidence, about the rapidity with which Latinos become fluent in English.

The author of the post, Eric Bakovic, sums up: "The body of research that has been produced on this topic consistently finds rapid language shift across generations, from monolingual Spanish (or whatever the non-English immigrant language may be) in the first generation, to some level of bilingualism in the second generation, to monolingual English in the third generation — a remarkably stable observation generally referred to as the 'three-generation rule', and if anything, the trend has been for this shift to speed up towards becoming a 'two-generation rule' ". 

It should not be too difficult to discover a genuine issue over which to expend one's concern. 

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