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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Linguistic Marginalities: Becoming American without Learning English


People living in the United States but unable to speak English are often portrayed as "marginal" and "isolated"—socially, economically, and geographically. Such narratives present the learning of English as central to "becoming American" and widely claim that earlier immigrants quickly acquired English. This paper counters such stereotypes. Wilkerson and Salmons present a case study of the extent to which one group of monolingual immigrants lived literally and figuratively on the margins. They draw qualitative and quantitative data from southeastern Wisconsin, especially one township, Hustisford. In 1910, 24 percent of Hustisford residents reported being German monolingual, 35 percent of those American-born. Contrary to assumptions of economic marginality, in this region such monolinguals were not only housewives and farmhands but also craftsmen, tradesmen, teachers, and members of the clergy. Another stereotype is that monolinguals were geographically marginal, but they find them living interspersed with bilinguals and English monolinguals. Nor were they socially marginal, as church records point to a broadly German-dominant but overwhelmingly bilingual community, where numerous Anglo-Americans became highly proficient in German. Even schools were hardly the powerful tools of English learning they are often portrayed as being. Despite all this, Hustisford and similar communities presented themselves as hyperpatriotic Americans. These monolingual immigrants, in short, were not marginal in the usual senses.

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