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Chad Selweski

Chad Selweski

The Great American Myth

August 11, 2017

When I was a kid growing up in the Detroit area, the idea that immigrants should be required to speak “good English” would have amounted to commentary that was equal parts quizzical and comical.

The ethnic melting pot of Detroit’s east side and in neighboring Macomb County existed as a place where multi-generational immigrant families often lived under one roof, and conversations at the dinner table rang out in a clattering cacophony of language from both the “old country” and the new homeland. Proper diction and pronunciation were not a requirement.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, neighborhoods and schools and churches and factories were populated by Italians, Poles, and Irish. Add into this mix the German families who had a longer lineage in the tri-county area and it was clearly a time when “broken English” served as a common form of communication.

The discovery that your friend’s grandmother spoke haltingly, with a heavy accent, was about as eventful as learning that the friend was left-handed. These aging, foreign-born immigrants were not legal or illegal, they arrived near the turn of the 20th Century to the land of the hyphenated American. Their progeny played a leading role in creating the American middle class.

The pattern was clear: The newly immigrated never mastered the language; their children were bilingual, learning English in school like every other kid, while communicating at home with their parents mostly in the native tongue; and the next generation struggled to converse with their grandparents at all because of a distinct language barrier.

So, immersed in my old-school version of a multicultural background, I now experience growing agitation as simmering anti-immigrant biases about a supposed lack of assimilation among immigrants boils over in 21st Century America. WASP-ish sentimentalities aimed at turning back the clock and creating an “official” English language at the state and local level have culminated in President Trump’s new proposal to cut U.S. legal immigration in half and limit U.S. entry mostly to those who speak English.

Yet, all of these English-only proposals center on a myth. Historians note that the idea that early generations of newcomers to the U.S. were quick to learn the English language and integrate into American culture is false. In fact, research shows that assimilation occurs at a higher rate now than during the huge wave of immigration that occurred in the many decades after the birth of our nation.

The 20th Century prominence of insular urban enclaves labeled Chinatown, Little Italy, Poletown, Greektown, or Germantown prove the lie of once-upon-a-time adaptation. In West Michigan, tens of thousands of hardy Dutch settlers quietly laid the groundwork for what has become a thriving area of the state. What would have happened to Michigan if all those early immigrants were kept out because they couldn’t speak English?

History of German-only schools

According to scholars of history, one substantial piece of the nation’s past that belies the so-called “American way” of orderly immigrant settlement has been largely lost. That reality deals with the reluctance of German newcomers to embrace U.S. culture in nearly any form.

In the mid-19th Century, a flood of Germans arrived in America and decades later many were still speaking only German. In far-flung schools from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin to Texas, children were taught in German-language classrooms. Some kids born in the U.S. spoke only in German dialects. It wasn’t until World War I, when Germany was labeled an enemy of the nation, that this loyalty to the language of Deutschland faded quickly in our homeland.

Nonetheless, our robust influx of people from overseas produced a workforce that helped build our railroads and highways, harvested our crops and, like my Dutch grandparents, engaged in entrepreneurship that invigorated many a Main Street and modest neighborhood. Today, newly arriving immigrants still stoke the American economic engine, regardless of their verbal abilities.

In 2017, ESL classes (English as a Second Language) are commonplace in K-12 schools and widely offered for adults, though they barely existed a few decades ago.  Assimilation is built into our new cultural fabric.

Frankly, I understand that some people grow irritated by government/business phone systems that advise, “Press 2 for Spanish.” But with the U.S. population moving toward 330 million people in recent decades, this phone-call phenomenon amounts to little more than a savvy, customer-service tactic. Most of those Hispanics punching “2” on their phones are grandparents and aging parents, not relatively young Latinos who strongly boost the U.S. economy.  The three-generation pattern from little-English to only-English still applies. No need to fear.

In Midwestern states such as Michigan, immigrants from Mexico and Central America remain so small in numbers – legal or illegal – that they present no threat to the region’s job market. The emphasis on Hispanics in the ongoing national immigration debate makes little sense other than in a few Southwestern border states.

Immigrants outshine U.S.-born residents

Meanwhile, multilingual big cities have adopted to demographic changes, for example implementing voting instructions at the polls that are printed in Korean, Chinese or Russian. Immigrants now represent a hugely diverse bunch of people.

What’s more, the non-native population in the U.S. is much better-educated and economically valuable than in the days when the Statue of Liberty first welcomed the world’s “huddled masses.” Today, 41 percent of foreign-born immigrants in the U.S. of all stripes hold a bachelor’s degree or more.

In thriving Macomb County, almost 100 languages are now spoken, and in some
residential areas the concentration of foreign-born people approaches 50
percent of the population.

Cities and townships once dominated by a few European ethnic groups are now home to families who emigrated from Iraq, India, Albania, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Mexico, the Philippines, Serbia, Croatia, Ukraine, Laos and Thailand.

A 2013 study by Global Detroit, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrant populations, found that southeast Michigan residents born offshore outrank the native-born populace in several categories: college degrees, home ownership, income, employment, and intact two-parent families.

These people are keepers.

In the meantime, no language-friendly prompt on a phone call asks to push 3 for Iraqi Chaldeans or 4 for Indians. But if the fallacies among our most intolerant people perpetuate, we may be dialing 911 to shore up the Michigan economy.

A freelance writer from Macomb County, Chad Selweski was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at chad.b.selweski@gmail.com.

August 10, 2017 · Filed under Chad Selweski

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Aug 11, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    Right. Of course. Conversely, a German doctor, in the US, imparted that 3/4 of German people speak English, presumably for commercial, educational, infrastructural reasons. Perhaps out of this will come Esperanto, or Pidgin. Radical dictators have no right to demand linguistic skills of one kind only. One might wonder what language(s) were spoken around young Donald Drumpf’s dining table.

  • 2 Frank Walshingham // Aug 25, 2017 at 6:13 pm

    Wake up from your dream world, pal! The prior generation of immigrants may not have ended up to be polished speakers, but they made damn sure their kids grew up literate in the English language, and were able to available to avail themselves of the many opportunities this country had to offer. You don’t learn English, pack your self back from where you came!

    As President Teddy Roosevelt said:

    “”In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American…There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile…We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language…and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”


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