Language, Education & Culture In the last decade, record numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal, have created the greatest growth of students in public schools since the baby boom. Few of these immigrants arrive knowing English. That makes the job of assimilating newcomers into the main American culture more difficult. Some question how much of their old culture immigrants should actually give up. And the schools are often the battleground in this struggle over language and assimilation.
The popular perception is that, in the past, immigrant groups were homogenized into the American culture in a huge "melting pot," losing their separate identities as ethnic minorities. But that perception ignores the thousands of rural churches that celebrated religion in the "old country" tongue well into the 20th century, and it ignores the millions of Catholic and other parochial schools that still exist.
The melting pot may have been more like a gumbo with lots of different ingredients thrown in, all maintaining their separate spicy flavor in an eclectic mixture of different tastes.
Yet, it is true that the United States remained united even with millions of immigrants funneling through Ellis Island before the 1930s. The question is, will we remain united under the strain of this new migrant stream.
Professor David M. Kennedy thinks we will. He says that today's Latin American immigrants are still a relatively small percentage of the overall population, and, on balance, they provide a positive economic benefit to the U.S. Kennedy argues that if America wants to grow its economy at the rate of three percent a year, we "must find somewhere between 5 million and 15 million more workers than can be supplied by domestic sources." So, we need Latino and other workers.
Professor Kennedy believes there won't be economic turmoil between U.S. citizens and the new immigrants. However, he suggests that Latino immigrants may be better able to hold on to their old cultural ways than other immigrant groups. For one thing, they're holding on to their language. According to the U.S. Census, 97 percent of immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican Republic do not speak English at home. About 52 percent of all foreign-born residents say they speak English less than "very well."
In the American Southwest, particularly California and Texas, Latinos are almost a third of the population. They are also still geographically close to their former homelands, not separated by a vast ocean but only porous borders. In those cultural enclaves, it's possible to live your life in Spanish. Kennedy says, "They could also undertake to do what no previous immigrant group could have dreamed of doing: challenge the existing cultural, political, legal, commercial and educational systems to change fundamentally not only the language but also the very institutions in which they do business."
Education. The schools are where many of these assimilation struggles are played out. "The influx [of immigrant students] has strained many districts' budgets and resources," according to Ginger Thompson in the New York Times. "In recent years, students learning English have flooded into small towns and suburban school districts that have little experience with international diversity."
Lexington, Nebraska, for example, is the county seat of Dawson County and now home to a large meatpacking plant. The packer has had to import Latino workers by the thousands, and that has profoundly changed the town of 12,000 and its schools. In 1987, the Lexington Public School was 95 percent white. In 2006, it was 51 percent white and 45 percent Hispanic.
About 165 miles to the east, Lincoln Nebraska has become a refugee center. The city's public schools now have students from 50 different countries speaking 50 different languages.
Nationally, education officials classify 5.1 million students one in 10 of all those enrolled in public schools as English language learners. That's a 60 percent increase just between 2005 and 2009. Schools are now expected to teach them English, a process that can take up to two years of intensive instruction to reach basic proficiency.
When Carla Due (left) came from Denmark to Nebraska in the 1930s, her parents were already here, and they gave her less than five months to learn English. "My parents threatened me," she recalls. "They would talk Danish to me until Christmas. [They said,] 'And then we're not going to say another Danish word to you, so you better learn.'
They had a different attitude toward an immigrant then."
Jim Ermer's parents came to the U.S. in the 20s and learned English fairly quickly. "Mom came over in 1923 and I was born in 1936. I never, ever heard anything but the English language talked in our house," Jim says. "In a pretty short period of time [we were speaking] 100 percent the English language. I feel bad about that. I wish I could talk German, but I can't because I wasn't around it."
It's not uncommon for the sons and daughters of immigrants to regret loosing their ancestral languages and cultural practices. Many small towns will now reclaim a watered-down version of an immigrant history and culture. For instance, there are at least three "Swedish Capitols of Nebraska" in the state, now, and various Irish, Czech, German and Polish capitols.
"Language is the lightning rod of conflicts," UNO Professor Lourdes Gouveia says. "It's very tied to what we identify first and foremost as the anchor of our culture." Jim Ermer says he is in favor of laws to require English as the "official language" of the country. But Lourdes Gouveia points out that, at least in Nebraska, it already is. That provision was put in the Nebraska Constitution in 1920. "Nebraska was the second state to pass a constitutional amendment naming English as the official language," Lourdes says. "It was done essentially against the Germans
Yes, speaking a common language is critical. But not necessarily at the expense of other languages. It shouldn't be English-only. It should be English-plus."
Former Nebraska state senator Elaine Stuhr (right) says she sees hope for the future. "I remember being part of the education committee visiting Lexington, and we heard from their student council. I was very impressed," she says. "Probably nine out of the 12 members were immigrant students, and they loved living in rural Nebraska. They came from California and all areas, and they were just so impressed. They had such a really good spirit of wanting to learn and becoming involved and participate."
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.