We’re All Immigrants
WASHINGTON — I do not recall hearing my father speak to his mother in English. My Italian immigrant grandmother knew few words in this strange new tongue, her best being something that came out sounding like Giorgia Masce — for Jordan Marsh, the New England department store that was her favorite.
Dad didn’t learn much English until he went to public school. Like former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, the language of my father’s home and his close-knit neighborhood was his parents’ regional Italian dialect. By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, his English was as good as that of any American teenager. It was plenty good enough for him to serve in World War II, survive the major battles of the Pacific theater and return home to build a career as a municipal housing specialist.
At home we learned a few slang expressions, but my father balked at teaching us Italian. “For what?” he would typically say. “You’re American!”
This personal story is not so much political as it is prescient. The experience of millions of today’s Hispanic immigrants turns out to be almost identical to that of my own family and millions of other descendants of the European immigrant families who flooded into the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
New research from the Pew Hispanic Center shows that virtually all Hispanic adults who are born in the United States to immigrant parents — 88 percent — speak English very well. The next generation is just about universally proficient in English, with 94 percent of them saying they speak English very well. The ability to read English shows a similar trend, the Pew research shows.
Previous studies conducted by the center show that Latinos believe English is necessary for success in the U.S., and speak it at work, even if they sometimes speak Spanish with relatives at home.
If there is a “War on English,” as a recent Fox News headline screamed, it isn’t being waged by the families of Hispanic immigrants.
Nor is it likely to result in an America in which Spanish becomes, by default, as prominent as is English. The mythology that has engulfed discussions about bilingual education programs, that has led a majority of states to enact some version of laws that call English their official language, and which animates hot complaints about new immigrants who supposedly are intent on building a distinct, Spanish-speaking society within America’s borders is — well, it’s a myth.
“We’ve really forgotten our history,” says Richard Alba, director of the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis at the State University of New York at Albany. “We’ve oversimplified this idea that the Europeans were all forced to speak English. That’s really not true.”
Alba’s own 2004 research, in which he compared language assimilation among current immigrants with Europeans who arrived earlier, reaches almost precisely the same findings as the Pew survey. Learning English and accepting it as the language of economic opportunity and social necessity follow a generational progression. What’s different today, Alba says, is that bilingualism among adult Hispanics — the ability to speak both languages, with Spanish sometimes spoken at home — seems to be more prevalent than it was among the descendants of European immigrants.
Another difference, though, was the strength of institutional support given certain European immigrant groups as they sought to maintain their mother tongues. “In the Midwest, there were public school systems that were bilingual, that presented instruction in both German and English,” Alba says. These lasted until the outbreak of World War I. In New England, schools that were bilingual for French Canadians operated into the 1950s. The Texas border region has historically been bilingual; the area was populated by Spanish speakers before Texas became part of the United States.
The deep concern about losing English as a common language cannot be disentangled from the larger fears driving the immigration debate. “As happened a century ago, there’s a lot of anxiety about immigration, about the social and cultural changes that it brings and the economic threat that it seems to be to many Americans,” Alba says.
Even so, all this agita about Spanish overtaking English seems not quite kosher in a country that consumes tortilla chips with abandon. While the larger problems associated with illegal immigration await resolution, we should at least know enough to drop a language controversy that will solve itself over time. So hasta la vista, War on English. There are more serious challenges to take on.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
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