Myth: Our ancestors happily learned English

America's multilingual past, forced into monolingual present
America’s multilingual past, forced into monolingual present

A common language brings people together. Historically, learning English was a priority for German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and Japanese immigrants (to name a few) because it helped them participate in the communities they joined. And because the United States is still predominantly an English-speaking country, that practice should continue today.
From Dear Abby, “Sharing Common Language Is Simply Common Sense,” Jan 23, 1997

Because the United States was at war with Germany, those of German heritage were the main target of suspicion. Soon German language instruction was banned in public schools. Then, parochial schools were forced to use only English in their classrooms. The churches were next, and eventually Iowa’s Governor Harding declared that only English was legal in public and private schools, public places and over the telephone.
From “It’s the Law—Speak English Only!”

We need to end the oft-repeated myth cited by “Dear Abby”, that our forefathers quickly, easily, and/or gladly “picked up” English. Their drive to learn English did not come because they saw a single language for this country as an obvious advantage. The rich and powerful spoke English in this country, and this fact worked in two ways. It motivated immigrants positively to cater to the rich in order to move up the social hierarchy, and negatively, in order not to be attacked, forcibly cut out, or humiliated by the most powerful people in the US.

This myth is equivalent to saying, “African-Americans understood that living together in close-knit communities benefited them as a people.” It helped them, but only because it was forced on them to avoid violence and humiliation.

Monolingualism—better described as English domination—did not develop naturally in the US. Not only did monolingualism never exist in this country, but violence drove every attempt at monolingualism. The great varieties of languages spoken in this country were forced out.

How was German purged? At the hands of mobs.
How was Ndongo extinguished? At the end of a slave-owner’s whip.
How was Lakota eliminated? By a boarding school teacher’s rod.

Sadly, so many monolingual English speakers continue to repeat the myth that “Dear Abby” intones above: “Our ancestors were happy to learn English so that they could participate in mainstream society,” or some variety of the same. While some may have taken on this task voluntarily, our society violently repressed languages besides English.

The situation today looks very similar to what we see in the past. We see that English-only bullies do not always need violence, as rules, punishment, and shame serve this function, as well. A very early post of mine featured the reprimand and sports suspension of a Native American girl for speaking Menominee at school.

More recently at a middle school outside Houston, the principal announced to the student body that Spanish was no longer allowed.

Random people may also accost you in public for speaking a language besides English. “We’re in America, you know!”

“We’re in America, you know!”

Ignorance of history fuels campaigns against other languages in the US. In Southern California recently a sign was posted: “During works hrs we the cafe have a English only rule for safety reasons.” This became policy in spite of the fact that the majority of cafeteria workers and 85% of students speak Spanish. How did this happen? Where did these cafeteria workers come from and why would they insist on Spanish rather than English?

Let me reverse the question: why would people insist on speaking English there? Why are so many people speaking English in California, at all? US military invasion led to occupation and ultimately to annexation of California. English was spoken because the US military took over after annexation grew to taking huge swaths of Mexican territory. Why do people insist on speaking Spanish? Because this area was filled with Spanish speakers before any English-speaking army invaded.

So we can see that English helped all of these people “participate in the communities they joined,” though they did not necessarily join these communities voluntarily (in the case of military invasion). Moreover, “speaking English” is not always the issue, but whether speaking another language will land someone in hot water.

What do we do now? Do we surrender to English only? How do you preserve a language in this atmosphere?


10 thoughts on “Myth: Our ancestors happily learned English

  1. You’re perfectly right and its not just in America but in any country people are expected to speak the dominate language.
    My mother went to a village school in Bristol England. The teacher made her wash her mouth out with soapy water because she spoke Romany to her friends. My grandad went down and played merry hell with the school and nearly got the teacher the sack but told my mother afterwards it would be easier for her if she didn’t speak Romany in front of non-Travellers. She married my dad a non-Traveller and although he didn’t say anything she knew he didn’t like her speaking Romany as it excluded him so she stopped. As I result none of her children speak much Romany.
    Another story, I was in Wales at a sales meeting and whenever my customer wanted to discuss the merits of buying my stock with her assistant they would revert to fluent Welsh, everyone educated in Wales is taught Welsh and English from the start. I’m used to it and it doesn’t bother me but her daughter came in and told them both off saying it was rude as I didn’t speak Welsh and couldn’t understand them.
    Last story, I was holidaying in France and the gite was owned by an English couple, I mentioned I was thinking of buying a holiday property in France and they advised me to take French lesson as I would get on better. Most of their French friends spoke English but they refused to speak it with them and would only talk in French. He said I would be very much excluded if I didn’t at least try to make an effort.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a dramatic story of how authorities distrust other languages. Thank you! The outcome, the fact that you don’t speak much Romany, is a pity. Of course, one wants to be considerate of not leaving people out of the conversation, but changing languages to fit a conversation seems normal, whether Welsh or French. One should always try to learn the language of the conversation–as much as one can. A new word is always a good start.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Rachel

    I live in South Australia, where most of the rural towns educated their children through German for the first eighty or so years of settlement – I live near the Hahndorf College, which was one of the state’s most elite boarding schools and a bilingual school from 1857 until it was closed in 1918 after several years of struggle for refusing to change to an English-only curriculum. At the same time, hundreds of men from the area were rounded up and detained on Torrens Island under suspicion purely because they had German names and spoke German – despite the fact that their families had lived in Australia for three or four generations! Since that time, there has been only one German-medium school in South Australia (populated entirely by expats), while there used to be dozens. (Most of them now teach German as a second language, since it has been lost as a community language – the last children to learn Barossadeutsch in the home are now in their sixties, and were a dwindling minority even then).

    Australia has a history of ruthlessly supressing any language other than English, starting with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 – a significant number of the convicts were political prisoners who spoke Irish or Gaelic as their first language. The history we’re taught in school tells us that white people went into the interior and took children from their homes and forced everyone to learn English and wiped out languages and whole tribes.

    The truth in South Australia, at least, is a little different. Most of the missions here were run by Lutherans who worked to learn the local languages and reach the Aboriginals on their level. Many languages are only around today because of the work the (German-speaking) Lutheran missionaries did to record the language, and a couple, including the Adelaide Plains language, Kaurna, have even been revived from these records! Some elders from up north say that one of the main reasons they continued speaking their languages as adults was because that was the language they spoke in church – there are even reports of children taken from other lands to the Lutheran mission in Gugu Yimithirr country who lost their own languages but learnt to speak Gugu Yimithirr fluently! (check out this article:

    One of the most successful missions was the Ernabella mission, which led to a thriving community and Pitjantjatjara-medium (later bilingual) school. Unfortunately, a lot of that is being undone today, since about twenty years ago the state government passed a rule saying that public education was to be in English, and since then school attendance and literacy rates have plummeted in the APY Lands. A friend of mine who is a teacher there says it’s very difficult to teach, because the children come to school with no English and are expected to be at level. Meanwhile, adults of thirty or forty years who went to school when it was bilingual are fluent and literate in English, Pitjantjatjara, and often another Western Desert language as well. It’s bad enough to think that these sort of ruthless language policies happened in the past, but it’s terrible to know that it’s still happening today – and in fact only started happening today!

    As a Gaelic-speaker, I’m of course aware of the oppression of language which went on around the world by English-language superiorists. It’s great to hear from Elle that Welsh is as widely used as activists like to claim it is – great to know that the language is making a comeback after the days of English oppression and the Welsh Not. But it’s sobering to think that while languages such as Welsh, Gaelic, and even Cornish might receive funding and support from the government, Romany (which, if we’re being honest, has been in the British Isles for almost as long as English has) will probably never get the same sort of support in education.

    By the way, have you redesigned your blog, or am I imagining things?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. As always, Rachel, your knowledge about language in Australia is enlightening.

      I have one question. You said that many of the people who came were Scottish and Gaelic speakers. Who were the people who forced English on the folks in the interior?

      You also make a great point about socio-economic advantage and language. The “white” languages get funding while the black & brown ones don’t. If you want to support Cornish, why not Bengali? One reason is if they don’t speak Cornish in Britain, it will be gone, but Bengali will be spoken no matter what they do in Britain. But I think supporting languages as much as possible in any country is a good idea, allowing people to span multiple cultures.


      1. Rachel

        The Gaelic-speakers in the early days (and I use the term to mean both Irish and Gaelic, since the Australian census only started counted them separately quite recently, so it can be hard to tell who spoke what) weren’t in the majority and certainly weren’t in any position of authority. I recall reading somewhere that convicts were sometimes punished for speaking “Gaelic” because the overseers couldn’t understand it and thought they might be plotting something. I don’t know how true that is, but it seems plausible, and anyway, English was certainly the majority language among the white population and free settlers were mostly English or Lowlands Scots.

        Also, there was quite a period between the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and the first exploration party to cross the Blue Mountains in 1813… The major expeditions into the Centre weren’t until John McDouall Stuart in 1858 and Burke and Wills in 1860 (things really only kicked off after camels were introduced in the 1840s). It’s important to remember that the Clearances were happening at this time (1792, 1811-1820, and 1851 being key dates), so the few Gaelic-speakers that did make it to Australia rather than to Canada or New Zealand mostly kept to themselves.

        … That said, there is some evidence for interaction between Gaelic-speakers and Aboriginal peoples in terms of some names we have for things… And of course the Yorke Peninsula here in SA is known for having local Aboriginal people who speak with Cornish accents…

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Rachel

      Hardly anyone knows about it. There’s a Wikipedia article ( that doesn’t really have much information, but that’s about it, really. Adelaide Uni’s launched a somewhat half-hearted attempt at reviving the language ( Aside from that, all I can really find on the internet is this odd YouTube video from Langmeil Winery talking about the Siebenschlafer ( (We have a lot of odd folk superstitions around here like that. Hahndorf still has a house local children won’t go near because the Schwarze Hexe lives there).

      Colin Thiele (he wrote a children’s book called Storm Boy) is probably the most famous speaker of Barossadeutsch and has written quite a bit about his memories of growing up in the Barossa in the 20s and recorded some folklore. My sister’s friend’s father, who was born in the 50s or 60s, also grew up in the Barossa and spoke only German until he went to school, but he’s the only one that young I know of. I live further south, near the Hahndorf and Lobethal area, and a lot of people refer to the German that was spoken around here as “Barossadeutsch”, although I’m not sure if it’s the same dialect or not. The church in Lobethal offers a German service once a month, but aside from that, no-one really speaks the language. I’ve often said I’m the only German-speaker in Hahndorf, and I didn’t grow up there and have no German heritage whatsoever. You won’t find anyone in the shops or tourist office who speaks it, but if you visit the nursing home, the majority of residents there speak German and some don’t speak English.

      Liked by 1 person

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