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A History Lesson: English Only

Bill Neinast


“Having pledged our allegiance to the Flag which protects our nation, we maintain our insist upon a 100 per cent Americanism, which includes speaking the English Language.”

This quote could be the rant of an ideologue frothing about any hint of amnesty for undocumented aliens in the country.  The thought, however, is much older than the current debate over the hordes of illegals doing the stoop labor in our vegetable fields, cleaning our hotel rooms, and roofing our homes in summer heat.

The words are almost 100 years old.  They were taken from a Ku Klux Klan proclamation posted on the doors of Ebenezer Lutheran Church in the Berlin community of Washington County, Texas, during WWI.  The threats in the proclamation were directed at the residents of German descent who were the backbone of the farming and business communities in the county.

Those threatened were first and second, and maybe even third, generation Americans who conversed more in German than in English.  The sermons and records in Ebenezer Lutheran and other Lutheran churches in the county were in German.  Some senior citizens remember that in the first two decades of the last century, German was the predominant language on the streets and in the businesses of the county.

Clinging to the language of the citizens’ ancestors, however, was not a sign of disloyalty.  Nonetheless, the hysteria against anything German back then was as widespread as that against those wading the Rio Grand today.

Consider, for example, this excerpt from a lengthy article on the web site of the Authentic History Center.

“As the [federal government’s] propaganda machine was cranked up, public rhetoric soon took on a distinctly anti-German-American tone. Literature began to directly attack German-American churches, schools, societies, and newspapers as agents of Imperial German conspiracy. Soon there were calls to throw out the German language and ‘all disloyal teachers.’  One publication read, ‘Any language which produces a people of ruthless conquistadors such as now exists in Germany, is not a fit language to teach clean and pure American boys and girls.’  The American Defense Society, an off-shoot of the National Security League, encouraged the public burning of German-language books and campaigned to change the names of cities, streets, parks, and schools in America to the names of Belgian and French communities destroyed in the war.  Germantown, Nebraska, became Garland after a local soldier who died in the war. East Germantown, Indiana, was changed to Pershing; Berlin, Iowa, became Lincoln.  Berlin, Michigan, became Marne (after the Second Battle of the Marne).  In June 1918, a Michigan congressman introduced a bill that would have required such name changes nationwide.

“Super patriotism soon reached ridiculous levels. The names of German food were purged from restaurant menus; sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, hamburger became liberty steak.  Even German measles was renamed liberty measles by a Massachusetts physician.  Super patriots felt the need to protect the American public from contamination via disloyal music by pushing to eliminate classic German composers such as Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart from the programs of community orchestras. Some states banned the teaching of the German language in private and public schools alike. In July 1918, South Dakota prohibited the use of German over the telephone, and in public assemblies of three or more persons.”

Speaking a language other than English was the excuse for much of the senseless violence locally and nationwide.  That seems one of the lynch pins for the knee jerk objections to any compromise on the current illegal visitor conundrum.

Oddly, not everyone complying with the law and applying for U.S. citizenship have to speak English, and sample questions and answers are published by the USCIS in English, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Azerbaijani.

So here’s the perspective.

The English language is the principle ingredient in the mix of factors that meld many cultures into the unique republic of 50 independent states. “Speak English,” however, is a red herring that misleads or detracts from the actual issue of solving the illegal immigrant problem. 

One who is not fluent in English may not be able to participate fully in the American experience.  A lack of fluency in a language foreign to an applicant, however, should not bar his or her realization of the dream to become a legal, productive citizen.

Becoming fluent in a foreign language is not easy.  Learning English is particularly difficult with some quirky spelling and pronunciation anomalies. Consider, for example, chair and choir; to, too, and two; duck and ducks, but goose and geese and on and on.

So before becoming entrenched in the speak English only mantra, remember how long it took our non-English ancestors to learn the language.