Our foreign languages: past, present, future

Published 8:45 am Friday, December 5, 2008

There’s a special section in some other newspapers called USA Weekend. In a recent edition was a short article that I thought was rather misleading and maybe even somewhat warped.

According to this edition dated Nov. 14-16, the English language is declining in our nation. In fact, the main headline said, “English loses ground.” The subhead declared, “Nearly 20 percent of Americans speak a different language.” And those other languages were listed as being primarily Spanish and Chinese.

Yet, while reading this short article, I thought there should be a little reflection on several other languages from the past. For example, there was a time when some Americans thought German was going to be the nation’s very strong second language. This never really came about for two reasons. First, some families thought their children should learn to use the predominate language of the new homeland — English. And, second, what caused a real decline in the general use of German, even as a subject taught in parochial and public schools, came about because of two world wars when Germany and Austria were the enemy.

Email newsletter signup

One of the most unusual aspects of life I noticed in Minnesota after moving here from east Oregon years ago was the way so many of the communities could be so closely identified with a predominate immigrant group and language. New Ulm was German, New Prague and Montgomery were Czech (Bohemian), Green Isle was Irish, and the northeast part of Minneapolis was mostly Polish.

In that earlier era, even the churches were identified by different nationalities and languages. One small town could have two Catholic churches — one German and the other Irish. In other places, with Albert Lea as the prime example, the Lutheran churches were once clearly identified as Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, German and even English (Salem).

I’m aware of people once living in towns or rural areas where nearly all the people spoke their old homeland languages in the homes, churches, stores and elsewhere. The exception was in the public schools. As a result, some youngsters had their first real contact with the English language when they started the first grade.

Right about here the concept of assimilation or blending should be considered. Somewhere along the way in the past nearly all those people originating in other nations became Americans and accepted English as their main language. And one factor which really helped in this regard has to be our education system.

Yet, what many people may be overlooking is the way people who are bilingual have been a real asset to our nation during times of war or crisis.

One of my college buddies was from what has been called “Czech Country” (New Prague). He was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II and became a member of a division band. After his unit was sent to Europe, he was soon transferred to a military intelligence unit so he could interrogate liberated German slave laborers and concentration camp prisoners from Bohemia and Moravia. After all, he had grown up with Czech or Bohemian as his primary language. Thus, he could easily converse people from his parent’s homeland and obtain valuable information helpful to the advancing American troops.

Somewhere along the way there’s an old saying or slogan that declares, “From Many One.” I hope in time some of the folks the author of this USA Weekend article is so concerned about will become English-speaking Americans.

Now, let’s switch topics.

My recent articles about using wood for home heating could result in a future photo essay or two in the Tribune. There are some outstanding wood burning fireplaces in the Albert Lea area. What I’m proposing is to take photos of these outstanding legacies of the past to be featured in the Tribune. If the owners of those fireplaces are interested in this proposition, then call 379-3438 anytime. We would be willing to identify the owners of the fireplaces, or respect their right to privacy and just use the photo. All we’re interested in is a future feature or two for our readers.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.