01/02/2009 03:56 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sprechen Zie Deutsch?: Did European Immigrants Really Learn English Quickly?

Many Americans take great satisfaction, sometimes bordering on maniacal pride, in claiming that their European ancestors came here and learned English quickly. According to some, these immigrants' boots were still wet from the spray of the Atlantic when they ditched German, Swedish, or Dutch. The thinking is that European immigrants rapidly mastered English in a sink-or-swim environment that demanded that they leave their mother tongues behind. The follow-up to this assertion is inevitably, "Why can't Latin American immigrants do the same and learn English quickly?"

It's a fair question. There's just one problem. The central thesis - that European immigrants swiftly adopted English - may be wrong.

Two researchers at the University of Wisconsin - Madison have published a study showing that America has a long history of (dare I say it?) multiculturalism. The researchers are Joseph Salmons, a German professor, and Miranda Wilkerson, a Ph.D. graduate in German.

Their study shows that until the late nineteenth century, and even into the early twentieth century, many German immigrants to that fine state still had not mastered English.

Germans made up that era's largest immigration wave to Wisconsin, which is the chief reason that the researchers focused on them. The researchers add, however, that another factor for this emphasis was because the Germans "really fit this classic view of the 'good old immigrants' of the nineteenth century." The researchers plowed through census data, court information, school records, newspapers, and all the other minutia that academics salivate over. When they were done, they had a linguistic record of German immigration to Wisconsin from the 1830s to the 1930s.

Their conclusion was that many immigrants felt no need to learn English at all, much less quickly, and that some of them, in the words of the researchers, "appeared to live and thrive for decades while speaking exclusively German." In fact, as late as 1910 - decades after the initial wave of European immigration - German speakers still accounted for more than 20% of the population in several Wisconsin counties. Some second- and even third-generation residents (yes, even many born and raised in the United States) still spoke only German as adults.

The researchers point out that "after fifty or more years of living in the United States, many speakers in some communities remained monolingual." The researchers added that "this finding provides striking counterevidence to the claim that early immigrants learned English quickly."

So apparently, whole swaths of America's heartland were overrun by people speaking devil languages (i.e., all languages except English) for decades. This is not exactly the instantaneous assimilation that we have been led to believe took place.

By the way, my lovely wife is descended from German immigrants, so I'm not exhibiting anti-Prussian bias or indulging in Bavarian bashing. My point is that Hispanic immigrants are constantly told that they're not as bright or as determined as European immigrants who mastered English in a week, tops. The additional implication is that speaking Spanish is - if not illegal - certainly an affront to American values.

The irony is certainly powerful. Right wingers claim that their ancestors needed to learn English quickly to survive, and that modern immigrants have been coddled and refuse to adapt. However, the reverse may actually be true: European immigrants could keep speaking their original languages with few negative effects, but contemporary immigrants are economically screwed if they don't pick up the local dialect as soon as possible.

According to the researchers, many of those hard-working Gunthers and Schultzes of the past were "committed Americans. They participated in politics, in the economy, and were leaders in their churches and their schools. They just happened not to conduct much of their life in English... There was no huge pressure to change." Speaking only German "did not act as a barrier to opportunity in the work force."

It's a different story today. People who come to America and don't learn English are doomed to perpetual lower-class status. Certainly, every effort should be made to ensure that residents get a grasp of English as soon as possible. I would argue, however, that insulting contemporary immigrants, indulging in fear mongering by claiming they won't learn, and mythologizing a past that may not have existed are not the most effective ways to do this.

By the way, if it worries you that a church in your neighborhood has occasional services in Spanish, take another look at Salmons and Wilkins' study. There, you can find out about the Lutheran Church in Wisconsin that, after much debate, added services in English.

They did it in 1929.