English only? Not in Minnesota history


Did you know that there was a time when there were non-English speaking towns in Minnesota that had non-English schools and newspapers? Would it surprise you to learn that in 1890 election instructions in Minnesota were in nine languages? The current uproar over English-only ordinances like the one recently passed by the city of Lino Lakes largely ignores Minnesota’s (and the nation’s) immigrant history. 

The sponsor of the Lino Lakes ordinance said it seeks to save translation costs. Those would be unknown future costs, as the city has not had to translate any of its documents to date. And the possible future savings would be limited, as the resolution accommodates translation services in matters of “public health, public safety, the promotion of tourism, the administration of justice and the handling of emergencies.”

Critics have argued that proposals declaring English the official language of cities or states are hostile to immigrants. Nativist sentiments are hardly new. Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1751, addressing the issue of German immigrants:

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?”

Much later, President Theodore Roosevelt would express similar sentiments, “We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.”

As recently as 2006 and 2007, the US Senate has voted on amendments that emphasized on English as a symbol of patriotism. Although both amendments passed, they were part of a comprehensive immigration bill that did not become law.

In an interview with the TC Daily Planet, Katherine Fennelly, an immigration specialist at the University of Minnesota, said that, despite language and cultural barriers, most immigrants attempt to learn English. That takes a while, according to Fennelly, who said that “history has shown that it is not until the second generation that children of immigrants begin to be fluent in English.”

According to Fennelly, the age at which an immigrant enters a country strongly determines new language acquisition skills. “After puberty it becomes more difficult for people to acquire language skills.”

Fennelly said that immigrants today learn and speak English faster than immigrants at the turn of the century did. She lamented, “It is sad that in many cases the offspring of immigrants tend to lose their parents’ language,” resulting in a loss of rich cultural heritage.  

Current immigration trends show that new immigrants, tend to be younger and more educated than immigrants of past generations. A report published by Fennelly through the Humphrey Institute, detailing the economic impact of immigrants in Minnesota, showed that nationally immigrants represent twenty-five per cent of physicians and forty per cent of engineers holding doctoral degrees.

An immigrant’s ability to learn a new language as an adult is also affected by their education level. Fennelly cites the first wave of Somali immigrants, who were educated and learned English faster than more recent immigrants, who have had little or no formal education. (Before Somalia’s 1990 civil war, the languages of instruction in the country’s education institutions were English and Italian.)

The Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) records show that in 1896, official election instructions were being issued in nine languages: English, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, French, Czech, Italian, and Polish. Today, the office of Minnesota’s Secretary of State makes provisions in six languages: English, Hmong, Russian, Somali, Spanish and Vietnamese.

Not unlike present-day immigrants, foreign-language newspapers allowed non-English speaking immigrants to keep current on local affairs and news from their home countries in the late 19th and early 20th century. The IHRC reports that there were over 100 non-English newspapers in Minnesota alone, and over 10,000 in the US.

Towns like New Ulm were once German-speaking said Donna Gabaccia, the director of IHCR. According to IHRC, “fresh immigrants often lived on farms — or in urban enclaves– where there was little incentive to learn English.” Incidentally, New Ulm, which still has a strong German cultural influences, was named after the German town Ulm.


Immigration in Minnesota

Here’s a quick history on Minnesota’s immigrants courtesy of the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights:

Various Native Americans tribes settled in Minnesota as far back as 6000 B.C. In the 19th century, the Ojibway and Dakota tribes comprised the largest inhabitants. The French and French Canadians would later move in as traders. By 1850, Minnesota’s farmland had attracted settlers from New England and immigrants from Norway, Sweden, Ireland, and Germany. The 1900 census also reports several thousand African Americans living in present-day Ramsey and Hennepin counties. (http://www.demography.state.mn.us/documents/centuryo.pdf). Immigrants from the aforementioned European countries would continue to make up the foreign-born population until the 1980s when the first wave of Southeast Asians made their way to the state. The latest waves of immigrants have mainly been from Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. Although the immigrant population is a lot more diverse now than it was in the 1900s, the percentage of foreign-born residents is smaller. The 1910 census found that twenty-six per cent of those counted in Minnesota were foreign-born; today, that number is only six per cent.