Speaking Like a "Good American": National Identity and the Legacy of German-Language Education
by Amanda K. Kibler — 2008
Background/Context: As a case study in minority language restriction, the German example provides a useful historical counterpoint to more recent debates regarding the place of non-English languages in American schools.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study and Research Design: This historical analysis examines the role of education in the changing discourse of minority languages and national identity, specifically analyzing the tradition of German-language education in the United States as it changed during World War I.
Findings/Results: The establishment of German-medium public and private schooling in the United States prospered until the late 1800s as the result of practical considerations and German communities’ own commitments to linguistic, religious, and/or cultural maintenance. German use in some of these schools declined in relation to English as the result of demographic shifts and efforts in the 1880s and 1890s to restrict non-English languages in schools. The advent of World War I, however, dramatically altered the status of German in society generally, and in education specifically. Wartime federal rhetoric and involvement, educational and social policies, and debates within the educational community indicate not only a period of restricted non-English language use in schools, but they also signal the emergence of a new conception of American identity, one defined in linguistic terms and displayed through the exclusive use of English.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Shifts in rhetoric and policy offer significant insight into the relationships between minority languages and larger issues of power and social control; the restriction and subsequent loss of a seemingly privileged non-English language in the United States reveals the precarious position of any minority language in society. Contemporary discussions about immigration, official languages, and national identities continue to operate within a monolingual English paradigm, carrying significant implications for schools serving immigrant and language minority students.
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