Why isn't German more widely spoken in the US as a mother tongue?

As far as I can tell it seems to have largely died out around the time of WWI as a mother tongue. I know there are some German speaking communities left and of course there’s the venerable Pennsylvania Dutch but considering the huge amount of German inward migration to the US over centuries I don’t fully understand why German isn’t something closer to Spanish in everyday life in the US. Did both world wars just snub out any sense of using German in communities?

Pretty much. There hasn’t been a large immigrant movement from Germany lately either. Most immigrants are real big on getting their kids to speak English. So the mother tongue dies out unless there is a steady influx of new immigrants from that area.

Exactly. I’d wager that the vast majority of “German-Americans” are at least 2 generations removed from Germany, and maybe considerably more. Immigrants and (more importantly) their descendants aren’t likely to keep speaking their old tongue if they don’t live in insular communities. Meanwhile, many Spanish-speakers in the U.S. are going to be immigrants, or first-generation natives, and are likely to be still living in Hispanic neighborhoods.

My father’s parents come from immigrant stock - Italian for my grandfather side and Polish for my grandmother. My great-grandparents spoke their native language and never forgot it, but they did learn English well. My grandparents and their siblings sprinkled foreign words into English, but were no longer fluent in the native language. My father only knew English and the same is true for me. All the Italian I know is either from the Godfather or high-school Spanish, and all the Polish I know is based on looking up recipes for things I remember eating at my great-aunt’s.

I don’t think the equation is any different for Spanish speakers. You just don’t see the great-granndkids of a Mexican immigrant speaking Spanish any more than you see the great-grandkids of a German immigrant speaking German.

Of course, you mostly don’t see great-grandkids of Mexican immigrants because most of them haven’t been here long enough. Hispanics are just the latest wave of immigrants. In the US, we’ve always had immigrants in waves - and every new wave is considered different and undesirable compared to the last wave. Every new wave is criticized for not joining in the melting pot. Given 100 years, we come full circle and decide that it’s cool. The Irish are a perfect example.

I think you nailed it with the lack of continued immigration. Italian in the US is pretty much dead except for maybe one or two neighborhoods in NYC and Yiddish is endangered, though still spoken. There has been no major Italian speaking immigration in the past generation, and the children and grandchildren of the Italian immigrants who came in the early part of the 20th century are growing up speaking English as their native language.

Yiddish and Pennsylvania German may be exceptional because of their importance to religious groups (Jews and the Amish) who make specific efforts to keep them alive. But, an important difference is that these languages are used in the community and the community members also learn English to get along outside, so it isn’t the exact same situation as immigrants coming here knowing very little English.

Nowadays, there is plenty of Spanish spoken in the continental US because there is a constant influx of Spanish speakers year after year that move in to communities and keep the language in use. If immigration stops or slows to a trickle, the language will start dying as more and more Hispanic people grow up in the US primarily speaking English.

My dad’s first languages were Spanish and Greek…English was a very distant 3rd and he didn’t start speaking it until he was a teen. I grew up speaking some Spanish but even though I was a baby when we moved to the US my dad emphasized that this was our country now, and English was the language we’d speak. He hated even having a Spanish or even Southwest accent, and was merciless in making us kids into ‘real’ Americans. My kids don’t speak Spanish at all (let alone Greek), and have a standard mid-west accent. They are indistinguishable to any other American, at least wrt their accent and speech.

It was similar to the German immigrants. My wife’s people came from Germany and settled in Pennsylvania. They have been here for 3 generations now and are completely integrated into the US by now.


Yes. Germans, Irish, and Italians have become well integrated as “White Americans” and no great cultural differences are seen anymore (not that none exist, but they are not really subject to ethnic prejudice anymore), and being Irish in the US isn’t considered to constitute being a minority anymore.

Although not all, maybe not even a majority of Irish migrants to the US were Irish speakers, the lacuna of that language in most of North America, even in the past, is an issue for another thread.

One of my great grandfathers could speak hardly any English, even as an adult. When he came to America as a boy, his family moved to a German speaking community in North Dakota. My grandma was born in that community. I know by the time she was a teen, if not before, she was in Portland because she went to high school here. I never heard her speak German.

I think an additional factor is the two world wars involving Germany. That’s bound to put a damper on relationships between USA neighbors and encourage assimilation, which would discourage public displays of German speaking.

Two big reasons from a guy from an area with a strong German heritage.

Reason one: A generalized hostility toward the German language during and just after WWI. There were state laws prohibiting use of German and other foreign languages in public, including church services which raised hob in the German, Norwegian and Danish Lutheran congregations through out the Upper Midwest. The Iowa Supreme Court approved the prohibition but the US Supreme Court found it to be a First Amendment violation. That did nothing to reduce the hostility toward the language of the Huns, the sermons of Martin Luther notwithstanding.

Reason two: Public education in English

I knew you were Hispanic, but Greek I didn’t know. What’s the story about this?

The three largest ethnic groups in the U.S. are, in the following order:

  1. German-Americans
  2. Irish-Americans
  3. English-Americans

(For the moment I’m going to ignore whether African-American or Hispanic should be considered as single ethnic groups. If I did consider them as such, they would be both in the same range as English-Americans.)

There are some rural small towns where a clear majority of the residents are German-Americans, but that’s pretty rare. I don’t think there are any of them where German is still spoken at home unless you count Amish communities. There are some neighborhoods in big cities with a large plurality of Irish-Americans. I’m pretty sure there are no neighborhoods where Irish is spoken.

Basically, there was a sort of unspoken social agreement in the U.S. that happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Protestant English-Americans decided that German-Americans and Irish-Americans could be considered as mainstream as they were, despite the fact that the clear majority of the Irish-Americans and almost a majority of the German-Americans were Catholic. A little later they decided that Americans of southern European descent and eastern European descent could also be considered as mainstream. By the end of the twentieth century they decided that Jews could be considered as mainstream. It was a matter of bringing in enough groups that the “mainstream Americans” could still think of themselves as the majority of all Americans. As these groups entered the mainstream, any attempt to live in separate communities for them quickly ceased, and there was a lot of intermarriage. Knowing a different language became irrelevant for these groups as they entered the mainstream.

There are still a lot of Americans who think of blacks and Hispanics and Asians and Middle Easterners as not quite mainstream. There are still lots of majority black or majority Hispanic communities. There are still lots of Americans speaking Spanish. There are still lots of Americans who don’t quite approve of, although they might not speak of it in public, marriage between mainstream Americans and those from groups which are not quite mainstream.

My grandfather was from Athens. When he was 12 he snuck aboard a ship, hoping to go to America. Long story short, he ended up in Sonora Mexico, settled down, met my grandma and never did get to America. My grandma and family eventually did though…and my dad became a fanatic about being an American, from his father.

To paraphrase from Goldmember…that old chestnut. :wink:


Texas hill country German communities were primarily German-speaking until WWI era education rules required education to be conducted in English. There was even an entire dialect of German called “Texas German” which is only spoken today by some really elderly people.

Even now, those areas retain a very strong German feel; but everything’s done in English.

Public education was in English, and English was the prestige language. That’s at least partly responsible for the decimation of Cajun French in Louisiana – the teachers would beat the French out of you back in the day. What happened, over a period of several decades, is that kids only spoke Cajun to their parents, and English to their peers at school. *Their *children spoke almost exclusively English, with very little Cajun. In Cajuns my age (mid-twenties) it’s almost unheard of to encounter a fluent Cajun speaker. Some people held onto it, through will or being raised by grandparents or other elderly relatives who made them speak Cajun at a young age.

I would assume that there are more Americans of English ancestry than Americans of German ancestry. But many Americans have more than one ethnic ancestry, and since “German” sounds more interesting than “English” to Americans, it’s more likely to be given as a single response.

That’s a pretty interesting story, thank you!

The further you go from the original immigrant family, the less you know the language. The reason why there is so much Spanish in the U.S. is because of constant influx of Spanish-speaking peoples. The friends I have that are third generation Mexican don’t speak Spanish.

I wonder if whatever survey that was allowed multiple responses. I’m Irish-American, English-American, Swiss-American, and German-American. If I had to pick just one, it’d be the first, as that’s the majority of my ancestry.

It wasn’t even “both world wars”, it was primarily World War I. While German was declining before then, there were still private (mostly parochial) schools that taught some subjects in German, there were German-speaking churches, German newspapers, German magazines, German book publishers, and so on. But the same patriotic fever/lunacy that led some people to call sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” led some Webers and Müllers to change their names to Weaver and Miller lest someone think they were less than 100% loyal, and the use of German in public places took a nosedive.