Historical English acquisition rates

In an peice at the end of today’s Fresh Air on NPR, linguist Geoff Nunberg made an interesting point that I’d like to verify.

The audio isn’t available online yet, so I can’t quote exactly, but essentially, he maintained that recent immigrants are learning English at a much faster rate than those from Europe a century ago, contrary to many American’s perceptions.

Basically, the Germans and Italians typically didn’t become fluent until the third generation - the grandchildren of immigrants. These days, it’s the second generation that becomes fluent - the children of immigrants.

The implication was that the “English-only” movement is based on ignorance and ill-informed opinion, which I don’t necessarily disagree with, but that’s neither here nor there, which is why I put this in GQ instead of GD. I’m looking for the factual basis of his claim.

Is his point accurate? Can anybody provide me with any cites to that effect?

As a professional genealogist, from what I’ve seen, the first generation to be born in America has always been fluent in English. The only question, in fact, is how well they learned their parents’ native language, or whether they did at all.

Adult immigrants almost always have difficulty learning more than rudimentary English. That’s why ethnic enclaves of immigrants from a particular country or even particular section of a country developed in all large cities. In these enclaves it was possible to get through daily life speaking the old language. Newspapers, social groups, entertainment, all was available in the European language. New York City had dozens if not hundreds of foreign-language newspapers.

Very young immigrants and those born here to immigrant parents were more likely to be completely or at least partially bi-lingual. However, they were often torn between the cultures and ethos practiced in their homes and the new American culture that they picked up at school and in the streets.

The third generation were assimilated Americans, completely at home in English and American culture, often alienated from their grandparents, often not able to speak the original language.

I’m not as familiar with the California experience with Asian immigrants, but it’s my understand that the same pattern holds true there as well.

In fact, I don’t know of any major immigrant group in any part of the country that has been in America for three generations and not followed this general pattern. There are certainly individual exceptions, of course, but as a general pattern it holds remarkably well.

Therefore the statement that earlier groups didn’t become fluent until the third generation surprises me. I would need to see evidence that this was true.

It may be possible that poverty and the need to drop out of school to work at a young age would have limited formal English education for a large number of immigrants’ children but that’s not the same as saying that they didn’t speak English. It’s also true that a surprising number of immigrants returned to Europe - I’ve seen one-third as the number, with as high as one-half of Italians - so defining the second generation may also be slippery.

In general, though, I’m doubtful.

I don’t have any numbers to back this up, but I can provide two realistic explanations of why it would be so:

At the turn of the century (the real turn of the century - 1899-1901!) immigrants, like most folks, tended to settle in one place and often stay there. In the case of immigrants, this was often in urban enclaves of their landsmen. I remember reading an old joke about a Chinese waiter in a Jewish delicatessan who spoke almost flawless Yiddish. When a customer mentioned it to the owner, the owner said “Shh! He thinks we’re teaching him English!” Very few communities are in such isolation now. But you’ll (or at least would when I lived out there 25 years ago) meet a lot more southern California folks whose ancestors lived in Mexico three or generations back who still have a slight accent than you will most other nationalities, and I firmly believe that this is/was because there was such a large and vibrant Chicano community; you didn’t need to speak English to live your life comfortably.

The other big difference, even more compelling, is the mass-media, especially television. When I had to travel to Spain on business, I was told by my Spanish contact there that English was much less widely spoken in Spain than in many other European countries because most TV from outside was dubbed. I suspect that if Americans had nightly doses of their most enjoyable TV shows coming into their living rooms in another language, we’d speak that other language a lot better too!

I agree that it’s quite rare for immigrants who arrive after the age of, oh, 25 at the most, to become really fluent in their new nation’s primary language. But even they will become more comfortable faster these days than they would have a hundred years ago for the two reasons I’ve mentioned.