A new study by the Pew Research Center finds that 47% of white Republicans say it bothers them “some” or “a lot” to “hear people speak a language other than English in a public place.” Some 18% of white Democrats say the same thing, perhaps a surprisingly high figure for a party that prides itself on diversity.
These people, no matter which party they’re in, are either forgetting their American history or simply denying it. English has always been our nation’s primary language but by no means the only one.
There was only one year in which English was the sole tongue of the European colonists who settled in what became the United States. That was 1607, when the English first arrived in Jamestown. The following year, Jamestown welcomed colonists from Germany and Poland. We have been multi-cultural from almost the very beginning.
By some accounts at least 18 different languages were spoken by white settlers in colonial America — and that doesn’t count what enslaved African-Americans or Native Americans might have spoken.
When our founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776 to declare independence, they would have heard many different languages spoken on the streets of Philadelphia. The first U.S. census a few decades later in 1790 found that 38% of Pennsylvania’s white population was German. Suffice it to say that any Americans today who say they’re bothered to “hear people speak a language other than English in a public place” would not want to go back in time to witness the nation’s founding. In terms of language diversity, the Philadelphia of 1776 was on the same par as some of our major cities today. Nothing here is really new.
Oh, and here’s something they didn’t teach us in school: The first newspaper to report the Declaration of Independence was a German-language newspaper — Der Pennsylvanische Staatsbote on July 5, 1776. It was a day later before anyone could read the text in English, in the Pennsylvania Evening Post.
Today, Spanish is effectively America’s second language, but back then German was. In some Pennsylvania counties, more than 50% of the population was German. Lancaster County was 70% German. That figure, by the way, is a higher percentage of diversity than Miami today, which is 66% Hispanic. That means that Dade County, Florida, is really today’s version of what Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was then. There’s certainly a lot of Spanish being spoken in Miami, but it’s doubtful there’s as much Spanish being spoken there today as there was German in Lancaster County in 1790. Those German settlers were primarily first-generation immigrants who knew no other language. Today’s immigrants learn English much faster than previous generations did.
For the proof of that, we need not look far. The Shenandoah Valley was settled by two big immigrant groups starting in the 1720s and 1730s — the English-speaking Scots-Irish and the Germans. More than a century later, many of their descendants still spoke German as their primary or only language. In 1794, German-speaking farmers in Augusta County petitioned Congress to publish laws in German “for the accommodation of such German citizens of the United States, as do not understand the English language.” The House of Representatives narrowly voted no, with the Speaker of the House casting the deciding vote. That speaker, by the way, was Frederick Muhlenberg, the son of German immigrants. He believed the faster that German immigrants learned English, the better off the country would be. That didn’t happen, though, at least not in the Shenandoah Valley.
The German language didn’t just survive; it flourished. Between 1789 and 1854, at least five printing companies in the Shenandoah Valley were producing German-language materials. Hymnals. Books. And at least four German-language newspapers. When the Der Virginishe Volksberichter was founded in New Market in 1807, its publisher was a fifth-generation German-speaker. The native language had lasted that long in the Henkel family. A language other than English didn’t seem to bother politicians in those days, because back then all parties competing in the Shenandoah Valley routinely published campaign materials in both English and German. As late as 1938, a Dayton printer produced a hymnal in German for the Old Order Mennonites who still clung to their forefathers’ tongue two centuries later.
John Adams believed that English-speakers should “force their language into general use.” That didn’t really happen then. It does now. The children of today’s immigrant children are routed into English in Second Language classes. Those didn’t exist then. On the contrary, in 1839 Ohio and Pennsylvania declared German an official language in the schools so that German-speaking children could be taught in their own language. Louisiana decided in 1847 to teach some students in French. Through the 1800s, the states of Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oregon all passed laws allowing schools to teach in languages other than English. One study found that in 1900, some 231,700 students in the Midwest — then the center of German immigration — were being taught in German, not English. There were also 613 German-language newspapers in the country — a dozen alone in New York City.
Hearing multiple languages is an American tradition. So is xenophobia, unfortunately. As immigration increased, so did an ugly strain of anti-immigrant sentiment. Like we said, nothing is really new. Some communities in the 1800s started to ban teaching in German — unless it was a foreign language credit for upper grades. World War I accelerated the crackdown. Some considered the language treasonous. Some places made it illegal to speak German in public, in church or on the telephone. Fourteen states banned teaching German in schools, period. Nebraska banned teaching any foreign language— a prohibition that the U.S. Supreme Court later overturned.
German disappeared as America’s second language, a victim of time and hysteria, but others took its place. Today, 21% of Americans speak a language other than English at home. That may sound high, but it’s actually lower than in the Philadelphia of 1776.
If that bothers you, perhaps what you’re really bothered by is the very concept of America. Nothing here is really new.
Let’s say that again: Nichts hier ist wirklich neu. Or, if you prefer, Aquí no hay nada nuevo.