I tend to steer clear of the more divisive political debates, because, who needs the aggravation of it. Right? Well, I was listening to a program on NPR recently and they played a clip of someone saying something like ‘there is a cultural shift in this country, we used to speak English, and we’re becoming bilingual…’ This irked me. As someone who loves linguistics and languages in general, it struck me as odd that language would be such a motivating factor for anti-immigration. I quickly realized that the language issue was likely just a huge fig leaf for what amounts to racism and bigotry. I was right. I decided to investigate. How language dominance has changed in the US over the years. If all we compare is German and Spanish speakers, we get a clearer picture of the debate as being racist fodder that ignores facts.
1910 German Speakers 3,962,624 > 1970 German Speakers 1,201,535
1910 Spanish Speakers 258,131 > 1970 Spanish Speakers 1,696,240
What this very basic comparison shows us is that German immigration fell by well more than half, and that Spanish speakers have increased by almost 7 times. What these numbers gloss over is that much of the nineteenth century was spent bringing in new states to the Union which had previously belonged to Spain, and, you guessed it, were predominantly Spanish-speaking. As late as 1850 California had an official government translator for translating all state laws, decrees, documents, or orders into Spanish.1
This image, from WWII era, is warning against speaking German, Japanese, and Italian. Nothing on there about the horrors of Spanish speakers, or how the country is experiencing a cultural shift. In fact, until WWI, German was the second most widely spoken language in the United States. Its decline is directly related to the War, and a backlash against immigrants. 2 So, those numbers above were not the result of fewer Germans wanting to immigrate, or more Spanish speakers wanting to, they were the result of geopolitical shifts that were happening at a macro level and are consistent with trends throughout history.
I’m not concerned with people who want to have a healthy debate about what immigration policy should be, or how it should be enforced, in fact, the debate is good for democracy, and can strengthen our institutions, but when the debate is had, let it be on facts, not some clearly misinformed nonsense that seems to hint that the US was hatched on July 4th 1776 as some fully-formed White, Christian nation of 50 gun-toting, god-fearing, fried turkey-eating states, because it simply wasn’t so.
Of course, all of this quietly ignores the uncomfortable truth that indigenous languages which once were spoken from coast-to-coast are now either dead, dying, or relegated to a few small communities that live in poverty and/or cultural obscurity. The debate will continue, with or without my contribution, but clarity is key if we are to accept that the changes we are seeing as inevitable and simply another chapter of our collective history.
1) Martin, Daniel W. (2006). Henke’s California Law Guide (8th ed.). Newark: Matthew Bender & Co. pp. 45–46. ISBN 08205-7595-X
2) “The War on German Language and Culture, 1917-1925 by Paul Finkelman”