America’s second language

Enemy's_languageWhen the U.S. joined in World War I, an anti-German attitude formed quickly in American society. German-Americans, especially immigrants, came to be blamed for the aggression of the German Empire. Speaking German was seen as unpatriotic. Frankfurters were renamed hot dogs. Many families anglicized their last names (e.g. from Schmidt to Smith, Schneider to Taylor, Müller to Miller etc.), and German disappeared nearly everywhere from the public arena. Many states forbade the use of German in the public sphere as well as the teaching of German.

The extensive campaign extended against all things German, such as the performance of German music at symphony concerts and the meetings of German-American civic associations. Language was a principal focus of legislation at the state and local level. It took many forms, from requiring associations to have charters written in English to a ban on the use of German within the town limits. Some states banned foreign language instruction, while a few banned only German. Some extended their bans into private instruction and even to religious education. A bill to create a Department of Education at the federal level was introduced in October 1918, designed to restrict federal funds to states that enforced English-only education. An internal battle over conducting services and religious instruction in German divided the Lutheran churches.[11]

On April 9, 1919, Nebraska enacted a statute called “An act relating to the teaching of foreign languages in the state of Nebraska,” commonly known as the Siman Act. It imposed restrictions on both the use of a foreign language as a medium of instruction and on foreign languages as a subject of study. With respect to the use of a foreign language while teaching, it provided that “No person, individually or as a teacher, shall, in any private, denominational, parochial or public school, teach any subject to any person in any language other than the English language.” With respect to foreign-language education, it prohibited instruction of children who had yet to successfully complete the eighth grade. Teaching German, even in private schools, was forbidden in Ohio, Iowa and Nebraska. There was a Supreme Court case (Meyer v. Nebraska) which ruled those laws unconstitutional, but German never recovered as the second language of public life in the U.S.

My grandmother spoke fluent German. It did not get passed down.

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4 responses to “America’s second language

  1. pwyll June 23, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    I know this is somewhat orthagonal to the point of your post, but it’s never too late to start learning… Duolingo is a smartphone app I can recommend that supports German. Viel Spaß damit!

  2. Pingback: America’s second language | Reaction Times

  3. Pingback: Benjamin Franklin on the increase of mankind | nydwracu niþgrim, nihtbealwa mæst

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