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 communitiesí 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.

The “forgotten legacy” of multilingualism in America (Crawford, 2004) is perhaps nowhere more clearly evident than in its educational system; policy and implementation decisions about the education of language minority students are made within a larger political context and reflect ongoing concerns over what it means to be an “American.” Recent and continuing immigration reform proposals in the U.S. House and Senate have sparked a massive response, and language has assumed a prominent position in this controversial discourse, evidenced dramatically in the Senate’s passage in 2006 of an amendment to an immigration bill that designates English as a “national language”—a proposal that has been called an “assimilation statement” by its supporters (Gamboa, 2006) and “racist” by its detractors (Hurt, 2006). Such efforts are part of an ongoing tradition that attempts to align national identity with linguistic proficiency in English; as Crawford (2006) explained, “symbolically . . . the amendment’s message is clear: One must speak good English to be a ‘good American.’” In teaching language minority students, schools are placed squarely in the center of this issue; although such issues have great relevance today, this debate is not without precedent.

Many nations share similar preoccupations with the language rights of immigrants and indigenous language minorities. As Banks (2005) explained, the status of minority languages and their role in education are some of “the most hotly debated issues in democratic multicultural nation-states, including the United States” (p. ix). With some notable exceptions, general trends indicate that the linguistic assimilation of minority groups is a “traditional policy, either implicitly assumed or explicitly stated, which most nations have pursued with regard to various minority groups who speak a different [non-societal] language” (Romaine, 1995, p. 242). In this sense, language policies can serve as a source of social control, which Macías (1977) defined as “the manipulation of the in-group and/or the out-group through the regulation of language use; that is, to encourage, inhibit, and prohibit attitudes, behavior, and participation in a social structure in certain ways through language policy” (p. 16). In the United States, according to Conklin and Lourie (1983), English monolingualism has been encouraged through the rewards of social approval, improved employment opportunities, and citizenship, but has been enforced through “ridicule, denial of access to employment and education, confiscation of ‘foreign’ language presses and publications, and beatings of school children for the use of other languages” (p. 157).1 Issues of language rights are also complicated because discrimination against minority languages may symbolically substitute for ethnic, political, social, economic, or even religious discrimination. In such a situation, those who assimilate linguistically may still be seen as “outsiders” by the majority for reasons not related to language (Romaine).

Although the generational loss of non-English languages in the United States has been called “a dominant (and perhaps even the dominant) ‘American experience’” (Fishman, 2004, p. 407), there is great variation over time and across languages in the extent to which non-English languages have been accepted for use in public and private spheres, including education. Demographic, political, social, and economic changes all impact attitudes toward language issues, which are often most contentious, Conklin and Lourie (1983) claimed, when national identity is being questioned and redefined. For example, in the United States during World War I, fears of foreign influence and questions of national unity translated into strong anti-German sentiment and unprecedented language restrictions on German. More recently, global migration patterns in the last several decades have made nations like the United States more diverse, ethnically, racially, and linguistically; previous waves of immigrants from Europe at the turn of the last century have been replaced by those from Latin American, African, and Asian countries. This demographic shift has led to a reexamination of national identity, which has been carried out through “acid debates about citizenship, minority rights, and social justice” (Banks, 2005, p. ix).

Educational policies clearly reflect these debates over national identity, the rights of minorities and immigrants, and the use of non-English languages in American society. Comprehensive restrictions on non-English language use in schools, which appeared in the United States in reaction to World War I anti-German hysteria, reflected an increasingly linguistic definition of American identity, and although many of these policies were repealed, an English-only ideology has remained. School practices in the United States today are inseparable from these issues, and bilingual education policies specifically have acted as both a “bellwether” for attitudes about language and a “lightening rod” for the English-only movement (Conklin & Lourie, 1983, p. 229; García, 2005, p. 161). As Spanish speakers today have come to constitute the largest language minority group in U.S. schools, animosity toward bilingual education has targeted this population specifically, regardless of the fact that non-English speaking students from many different languages participate in such programs. Fillmore (2004) attributed this pattern both to Spanish-speakers’ demographic salience and to persistent anti-immigrant attitudes that have flared in response to fears about the “intentions and influence” of this significant language minority population (p. 351). Current efforts to define Americans through immigration status and language use, especially in relation to education, can be seen as contemporary expressions of the ongoing discourse that gained widespread prominence during World War I and continues to shape contemporary discussions of the roles of language use and education with regard to immigrant and multilingual pupils.

The following analysis of the teaching and use of German in the United States during World War I is an intriguing example of how social and political forces can affect the precarious situation of minority languages in education, and society at large. As Ricento (1998) and others noted, Germans were not subject to the long-term linguistic discrimination experienced, both in education and other contexts, by many Spanish speakers, Native Americans, African Americans, and speakers of languages like Gullah and Louisiana Creole, among others. German Americans were seemingly privileged in relation to these linguistic minorities, and instruction in German was prevalent in many schools throughout the 19th century, notwithstanding attempts late in the 1800s to require English as the medium of instruction. Despite this apparent vitality, however, the status of German as a minority language in American schools proved vulnerable to political forces. The dramatic rise of anti-German sentiment in the World War I era led to rhetoric and policy that began to shape a national identity in linguistic terms; English use was mandatory to demonstrate patriotism, and the teaching or use of German became a potentially seditious activity, much as Japanese language instruction was considered during World War II (Romaine, 1995). In the face of various policies implemented during the war that restricted non-English language use and instruction, schools were often given little choice but to eliminate German, even as a foreign language. In one sense, German speakers were fortunate; they were able to eventually assimilate into mainstream society, an option “open only to peoples who resemble the majority population in physical characteristics” (Conklin & Lourie, 1983, p. 172). However, German’s virtual disappearance from education during World War I and the extraordinary pace of language loss in the German American community subsequent to that time attest to the uncertain status of even seemingly advantaged minority languages. The use of English monolingualism as a marker of American identity, firmly established in wartime rhetoric, continues today, especially in relation to the use of non-English languages in education.


The early establishment of German-medium schooling in the United States prospered as the result of a general, albeit selective, climate of tolerance regarding language use that was prominent in the United States until the late nineteenth century. As Shirley Bryce Heath (1976/1992) explained, early American leaders privileged political liberty over linguistic homogeneity, resulting in the “absence of official selection of a specific language for use . . . or a linguistic norm to be achieved by immigrants” (Heath, 1981, p. 6). This tolerance, however, was never extended to Native Americans and African American slaves, among others.2

Although English was the only language officially promoted in this period, tolerance of other European languages in education was widespread, and the use of German in public and private education became common because of the size of German communities: At the peak of German immigration in 1880, approximately 60% of all foreign-born immigrants, excluding those who spoke English as mother tongue, spoke German (Kloss, 1977).3 In this era, private schools justified German instruction as necessary for cultural and religious maintenance, and public schools incorporated German as a result of practical and political concerns.

Early German settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries first established private sectarian schools, a tradition that continued throughout the 19th century as subsequent immigrants developed private nonreligious and sectarian schools, with German Lutherans and Catholics most prominent among the latter group.4 The use of German in these schools was predicated on the importance of preserving the mother tongue and home culture, and for parochial schools specifically, German language use was often associated with the maintenance of religious piety. According to Kloss (1966), in the 1800s, “‘Language saves faith’ was an oft-repeated watchword among German Americans. Thus, to the pious, the German language became a symbol of quiet, honest religiosity as against the Yankee’s alleged noisy superficiality” (p. 227).

Heath (1981) contended that in-group language maintenance and religious support were closely related for many language groups in the US at this time, in that students “learned to read from religious materials and were called on to display their school learning in understanding and contributing to aspects of church-related and community-centered activities” (p. 12). In this manner, the German language provided essential access to the religious world and the community in which it was situated. Thus, instruction in the German language was a primary function of private schooling, and as attempts in the late 1800s were made to restrict German instruction in public schools, interest and enrollment in private education was renewed (Wiley, 1998).

Support for German instruction in public education was present as well, although for utilitarian, rather than religious or cultural, reasons. In relation to education, public policies were usually seen as “agnostic on language use” until the mid 1800s and were implemented using the criteria of practicality and political expediency rather than ideological beliefs regarding the value of non-English languages (Wiley, 1998). State laws were generally supportive of this trend, and by the mid 1800s, over a dozen states had explicitly authorized the use of languages other than English as subjects or media of instruction. In 1839, Ohio passed a law permitting bilingual German/English and German-medium instruction in public schools, and 4 years later, Louisiana adopted the same statute for French. Additionally, New Mexico authorized Spanish/English bilingual education in 1850. However, this tolerance was not without exception, even among states with large non-English-speaking populations: California mandated English-only instruction in 1855 and in 1878 became the first state to require all official government proceedings to be conducted solely in English (Crawford, 2004).

In rural areas where recent German immigrants formed “language pockets,” public schools provided German instruction because school officials had few other possibilities (Kloss, 1977). For example, a third of Wisconsin’s population in the mid-1800s was foreign born, so “a concession [to allow non-English instruction] seemed hardly necessary for specific notice” (Heath, 1981, p. 13). In many rural and completely German areas, communities were unable to find English-speaking teachers, so although local laws did not always specifically promote German-language instruction, its practicality influenced many school officials. For example, many newly established public schools in the Midwest that had a “solidly German population [felt] an irresistible temptation to hire a German teacher and to have the school conducted exclusively in German, or in both tongues, no matter what the statutory provision might be” (Kloss, 1966, p. 234). Thus, expediency determined the language of instruction in many rural areas, depending on teacher availability and student homogeneity.

German instruction was a prominent feature of education in urban and less isolated rural areas as well, where students had both public and private educational options. Public school provision of German as either a medium of instruction or a subject was often undertaken in an attempt to appease the local community or in an effort to compete with German private schools. As the school superintendent of St. Louis in the 1870s, William Torrey Harris, explained, “If the German children can learn to read and write the language of the fatherland in the public schools, they will not need separate ones” (Crawford, 2004, p. 86). Harris realized that “dissatisfied parents had the option of Catholic or Lutheran schools, which were actively competing for students. So it was important to address their aspirations” (p. 85). Moreover, Heath (1981) contended that at the beginning of the common school movement, immigrants were seen as “potential clients to be courted and accommodated” (p. 13), so public schools used German instruction to recruit students who might otherwise have attended private, non-English schools.

Additionally, German parents often held substantial political control in communities where they constituted the majority of the population. A report from the Dakota Territorial Board of Education (1886–1888) observed,

Some instances came to the attention of the board where the teacher was not even able to speak the English language and nothing could be done about it, as the foreign element was so strong that they not only controlled the schools, but the election of the county superintendent also. (Kloss, 1966, p. 235)

Interestingly, the arguments of these German parents in support of public school-based German instruction often differed from those of private school advocates. In a petition to the St. Louis Board of Directors in 1864, local German citizens tried to win support for the teaching of German as a foreign language in public schools by stressing its practical importance for all students. They claimed “that by such an introduction, a homogeneousness of feeling would be created between the native and foreign born, that the study of German would naturally assist the study of the English language, and that the knowledge of the German language has pecuniary benefits for those who speak it” (Harris, 1875, p. 116). These appeals were effective in persuading the committee to recommend that German be introduced in four St. Louis schools, a program that was eventually extended to all city schools in which 100 or more students requested German instruction.

Despite the prominence of German schooling in St. Louis, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and other cities, public school tolerance of German waned near the end of the 19th century. In the 1890s and the early 1900s, increases in public schools’ enrollment and influence largely eliminated the need to compete with private schools to raise enrollment figures. With German instruction no longer necessary as a recruitment tool, and with the appearance of state laws attempting to restrict the use of non-English languages in education, the use of German in public schools declined significantly.


Although the Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s helped to introduce nativist rhetoric into American politics,5 widespread attempts to replace immigrant language instruction with increased English-language teaching and Americanization efforts were first prominent in the late 1880s. This resurgence of nativism is attributed in part to efforts of the American Protective League, whose targeting of German-language instruction was seen as one aspect of a larger anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant campaign. Because many Catholic schools used German as the medium of instruction, education became a focus of the American Protective League’s campaign (Crawford, 2004; Kloss, 1977). At this point, “ethnic politics” became prominent as justifications of language-in-education policies in public and private schools. According to Joel Perlmann (1990), an education historian,

The discussions did not focus on the psychological advantages or disadvantages of bilingual training for children, issues such as whether children would learn mathematics better in German or English or whether children would be emotionally better off learning English one way rather than another. . . . Rather, the issues had to do with being a good American and creating a good America. (p. 31)

The league’s attempts to restrict language, therefore, can be seen as early efforts to equate Americanization with Anglicization and to link linguistic and cultural homogeneity to national unity.

The late 1880s and 1890s represented a period of increased attempts to mandate English-only instruction for many non-English-speaking populations throughout the United States and its territories. With regard to Native American languages, for example, by 1887, both the Secretary of the Interior and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs had issued regulations and strong recommendations that Native American students be taught only in English (Reyhner, 1992). In 1889 and 1890, the American Protective League’s proposal to mandate English as the only language of instruction in public and private schools was integrated into new laws prescribing the use of English in several states, including New York, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota (Kloss, 1977). Moreover, in the 1890s English-only measures were imposed in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines as they came under U.S. control (Crawford, 2004).

These statutes were, however, met with resistance from German communities, as can be seen in efforts to oppose the Bennett Act in Wisconsin and the Edward Act in Illinois. Both implemented in 1889, these statutes mandated English instruction in all public and private elementary schools in the subjects of reading, writing, arithmetic, American history, and, in Illinois only, geography. These measures primarily targeted private schools, whose use of English was, in some cases, restricted to a small portion of the curriculum; this was especially the case in German Lutheran schools and, to a lesser extent, German Catholic schools, which had already begun to use English in equal measure with German (Kloss, 1977). German Americans, led by German Lutherans, unified across sectarian lines in opposition to these measures (Crawford, 2004). The resulting political alliance forced the current state Republican administration from office, ushering in Democrats who revoked the measures in Wisconsin and Illinois. In the 2–3 years that elapsed between the enactment and repeal of these acts, however, schools made efforts to accommodate the new legislation, reducing, although not eliminating, the amount of German taught in parochial schools.

Although these state measures sought to limit, rather than prohibit, German instruction, a general shift in public and private education away from German can be traced to these late 19th-century restrictions. Wiley (1998) noted that by the end of the century, decreased immigration, as well as increased urbanization, industrialization, and federal control, led to a lessening in demand for German as a medium of instruction in some areas. German instruction was still predominant as a foreign language at the secondary level, however, with enrollments in German approximately twice as high as those in French from 1890 to 1915. Only Latin had higher enrollments during this period (Draper & Hicks, 2002). German remained an important language of instruction in several regions, including the Great Plains states, until the World War I era.


The political and social upheaval of the First World War precipitated dramatic shifts in attitudes toward non-English languages generally, and German specifically. As Skutnabb-Kangas (2000) explained, languages are inextricable from the larger ideological, political, and economic context: “The relative visibility and perceived value of various languages have less to do with the language themselves and their speakers, and more with the ideological and political/economic relationships between the speakers of the respective languages and the states where they live” (p. 17). In the German case, increasing American hostility toward Germany and a growing sense of nationalism led to the devaluation and restriction of the German language and culture in the United States, a trend that is clearly visible in educational policies.

The outbreak of war in 1914 initially led to a variety of pro-German activities in German communities, including a campaign for American neutrality. As the war in Europe progressed and the United States began to express pro-British sympathies, German hopes for neutrality waned, and anti-German sentiments increased, expressed through attacks on the German language and culture. With the United States’ entry into World War I in April 1917, criticism of the use of non-English languages, especially German, became prevalent in national rhetoric and was translated into restrictionist language policies at the state and local levels. Interestingly, these policies and the rhetoric behind them remained prevalent after the official cessation of the war.

Earlier nativist efforts to marginalize or eliminate non-English languages in education and other realms were reenergized by the United States’ entry into by World War I, after which anti-German sentiment was actively encouraged, and Americanization efforts became popularly accepted. Higham (1988/1992) claimed that, on the eve of World War I, “what [the Americanization movement] lacked chiefly was followers. It failed signally to awaken a mass response in the American people. Then the war transformed it. In a few months Americanization blossomed into a great popular crusade” (p. 77). In support of this movement, thousands of local organizations enthusiastically engaged in various Americanization activities, although without a centralized source of control or authority (Kloss, 1966).

In this context, language became the predominant, “if somewhat schizophrenic,” issue in the Americanization movement (Leibowicz, 1985/1992, p. 105). The symbolic power of language made it an especially suitable target for Americanization attacks:

The apparent solicitude for the national language exhibited by many of the Americanizers was a mask for racial, economic, and political hostility toward users of other tongues. Because language issues can easily be loaded with otherwise unsavory or unacceptable agendas, elements of the Americanization movement were able to transform language from a shield against linguistic chaos into a sword against supposed nonlinguistic differences as well. (p. 107)

Thus, language became the most obvious issue in a social context that threatened many aspects of German ethnicity, and, as a result, attempts were made to eliminate German in most aspects of public life. The repudiation of the United States’ German heritage was frequently evident in name changes of banks, cities, schools, streets, parks, and other public places (Higham, 1988). Moreover, the German-language press was attacked by English-only publications as inherently disloyal and pro-German; a combination of public pressure and government censorship led to the demise of over 47% of the major German publications between 1917 and 1919 (Luebke, 1974). Most German social organizations were also dissolved, and in some areas, the speaking of German was forbidden in meetings, public places, and even on the telephone (Kloss, 1966). More violent anti-German expressions included the burning of German textbooks, vandalism, and physical attacks (Luebke). Although these activities were more prominent in some places than others, sufficiently strong anti-German sentiment during World War I created an atmosphere in which advocacy for German language and culture was associated with physical danger at times, and, at the very least, the risk of appearing un-American.


Throughout World War I, national leaders and federal organizations systematically pressured state and local governments, and even individual citizens, to adopt a narrow view of American identity, which excluded the possibility of cultural or linguistic pluralism. This was accomplished, however, through coercion rather than force. As Ricento (1998) explained, a “deep value” prevalent in the United States was (and is) that the federal government should not directly interfere in linguistic or cultural issues. Thus, although federal legislation did not explicitly prohibit German language in education or other realms, “federal urging [italics added] . . . demonstrates that the national government was not a neutral bystander in matters of educational policy” (Wiley, 1998, p. 228). Moreover, a general intolerance was engendered among the American populace through a series of alarmist statements made by prominent leaders, creating an environment in which anti-German state and local actions were often unquestioningly supported.

As early as 1917, Americans were urged by national leaders to oppose any use of the German language, which was seen as undermining American identity at the individual level and threatening American security at the national level. In former president Theodore Roosevelt’s 1917 appeal entitled “The Children of the Crucible,” the use of languages other than English, especially German, was considered an “enemy” activity, against which patriotic Americans must be vigilant in the interest of national safety:

This applies especially today to all Americans of German blood. . . . We must have but one flag. We must have but one language. . . . Any force which attempts to retard [the] assimilative process is a force hostile to the highest interests of our country. . . . We call upon all loyal and unadulterated Americans to man the trenches against the enemy within our gates. (Roosevelt, 1917/1992, p. 85)

Using militaristic imagery, Roosevelt thus established the idea that Germans who maintained their language in any form were not only “adulterated” Americans but were also enemies to the nation. Then-president Woodrow Wilson also invoked images of American vulnerability to encourage the eradication of German language use. In his Flag Day speech of 1917, Wilson claimed that the “military masters of Germany” were infiltrating the United States with spies attempting to corrupt the American people. Furthermore, he asserted that those who spoke German, a “sinister tongue,” were often agents trying to undermine the United States government with false shows of loyalty (Luebke, 1974, pp. 234–235). Americans were encouraged, therefore, to identify any use of the German language with seditious activities and to question the extent to which any German speaker could actually be American.

Identity was predicated upon a singular, monolingual notion of national identity, and throughout the war, President Wilson warned against the undermining influence of dual affiliation with foreign and mainstream American linguistic and cultural traditions. Even after the Versailles Treaty was signed in 1919, Wilson continued to attack bilingual and bicultural identities as inherently un-American. In reference to the existence of “German-Americans,” Wilson declared,

I want to say—I cannot say too often—that any man who carries a hyphen about him carries a dagger which he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the Republic. If I can catch a man with a hyphen in this great contest, I know I will have got an enemy of the Republic. (Luebke, 1974, p. 325)

Therefore, Wilson rejected the notion that German language or culture had any place in American society. Although it is difficult to know if Roosevelt’s and Wilson’s statements were merely a reflection of popular sentiment or if they in fact originated such ideas, the significance of their rhetoric is clear: In this context, German-language instruction was viewed as openly seditious in that it challenged the linguistic and cultural unity upon which this particular vision of American identity was based. This demand for “100 percent Americanism” was prevalent throughout the World War I era (Higham, 1988/1992).

Federal agencies, along with the various national organizations that they supported, were quick to build on this demand for linguistic Americanization, especially within the realm of education. The Council of National Defense, established in 1916 and headed by the then-secretary of war Newton Baker, disseminated anti-German directives for the sake of “making the foreign peoples a united body of Americans” (Hartmann, 1948, p. 204). Through state Councils of Defense, the wishes of the National Council were enacted through policies aimed at abolishing German instruction and encouraging Americanization through English language teaching. The Committee on Public Information, the Americanization Council, the American Defense Society, the National Americanization Committee, and the Federal Bureau of Naturalization all overtly pursued similar goals of English instruction and Americanization, predicated upon the need to eliminate German-language instruction (Hartmann).

Surprisingly, at this time, the Americanization Department of the U.S. Bureau of Education was seen as a moderate voice among federal organizations. In 1919, their position was stated as follows:

We recommend urgently to all states to prescribe that all schools, private and public, be

conducted in the English language and that instruction in the elementary classes be in English. But our office does not oppose the conduct of church services in other languages, and also not the instruction in other languages as long as thereby the right of the child to acquire an elementary knowledge of the English language and to receive his education in it is not violated. (Kloss, 1977, p. 71)

Such a stance differed from those of other federal organizations and affiliates in that, although not challenging the dominance of English, it conceded a place in American schools and society for multilingualism. Not surprisingly, leading German religious groups agreed with these arguments and supported the use of this model at the local level (Kloss, 1977). As Moore (1937) explained, however, states and communities rarely heeded these recommendations as they implemented wide-ranging educational language restrictions.


A variety of state-level restrictions on the use of non-English languages in elementary and secondary schools originated in the passage of the Smith-Towner Act (1918), federal legislation designed to pressure states into adopting English-only education statutes. Supported by both the National Education Association and the Association of College Presidents of the United States, the act required that “no state could share in federal funds unless it enacted and enforced laws requiring that the chief language of instruction in all schools, public and private, be English” (Luebke, 1974, p. 312). By early 1919, 15 states complied with this requirement. The most restrictive statues included Iowa’s and Nebraska’s measures that forbade instruction in any foreign language before ninth grade, and Ohio imposed a similar restriction for German only (Kloss, 1977).

These restrictions, combined with strong anti-German sentiment prevalent at the time, led to a dramatic decline in German instruction at the elementary and secondary level. Although by 1917 most parochial schools offered instruction primarily in English, with the exception of religion classes held in German, they were still accused of being “nurseries of kaiserdom” (Luebke, 1974, p. 253). As a result of a strong propaganda campaign led by politicians and the English-language press, many of these schools were forced to close or eliminate German from their curricula entirely. In public elementary and secondary schools, most vestiges of the German instruction prevalent in the late 1800s were similarly eliminated. Moore (1937) contended that the teaching of German as a foreign language in the secondary school was “all but annihilated” after the United States’ entry into the war (p. 136). Available statistics indicate that German foreign language enrollments of 324,000 secondary students in 1915 dropped to fewer than 14,000 students by 1922 (Wiley, 1998). Although Latin, French, and Spanish instruction constituted increasing proportions of total secondary enrollment after the war, foreign language instruction declined overall in the first half of the 20th century; whereas over 73% of secondary students in 1915 enrolled a foreign language, only 22% did so by 1948 (Draper & Hicks, 2002).

The persistence of an English-only, 100% American perspective is evident in the fact that state-level action against German instruction, in the guise of Americanization efforts, continued even after the end of World War I. Interestingly, most of the restrictionist state laws were enacted after Armistice Day, and several of the state organizations supported by the National Council of Defense during wartime attempted to continue their Americanization activities into the early 1920s (Hartmann, 1948). For many, the German language retained its character as a stigmatized language, and in passing restrictive state legislation, many lawmakers continued to associate German with disloyalty and risks to national unity and security.


Justifications for the maintenance of German instruction during and immediately after World War I can be classified according to several criteria, including practicality, political neutrality, and cultural and religious maintenance. A “stubborn minority” of federal public education officials, as well as some moderate media voices, saw learning German as the acquisition of a valuable and practical skill whose elimination should not be based on political concerns (Wiley, 1998, p. 227). Private schools were the sole proponents of German instruction on religious grounds, but advocates for cultural maintenance could be found among private and public interests. Inherent in each supportive argument, however, was the notion that knowledge of German was an individual and societal strength rather than a weakness and that American loyalty would not be compromised through knowledge of German.

The U.S. Bureau of Education and its commissioner, P. P. Claxton, were perhaps some of most prominent official voices counseling moderation in decisions regarding German-language instruction. In the 81st annual report of the superintendent of schools (1916–1917), Claxton asserted that knowledge of German produced valuable individual and societal benefits: “We cannot afford to eliminate the German language entirely. It is and will be of great value commercially, scientifically and intellectually. Many of the best educational and scientific works are written in German by German authors” (Moore, 1937, p. 31). Further, Claxton contended that maintaining business, social, and intellectual contact with the millions of Germans outside Germany was an important justification for continuing its study as a foreign language. Elements within the national press also supported these notions, although rarely; in the prewar era, an article in The Independent (April 15, 1915) noted a decline in German instruction but stressed its value “on the grounds of its commercial, cultural, and scientific value” (Moore, 1937, p. 25). In these and other similar arguments, the German language was not villainized, nor were the accomplishments of Germans to date degraded or minimized. German language, education, and culture were still accorded respect regardless of the international political situation.

Claxton and other prominent educators warned against what they saw as the inappropriate influence of politics on educational decision making. In a letter to the president of the University of South Dakota, Claxton stressed, “The United States is at war with the Imperial Government of Germany and not with the German language or literature.” As a result, Claxton stated, “I want it definitely understood that my opinion is not influenced by the entrance of the United States into the War. I do not believe our present relations with the German empire should affect in any way the policy of our schools in regard to German instruction” (Moore, 1937, p. 31).

Supporting this notion, an editorial article in School Review (XXV, 1917) argued that if German was to be abandoned, it should be for educational or social reasons and not “animosities arising out of the War” (Moore, 1937, p. 34). Thus, the learning of German was believed to be neither inherently American nor un-American, and the practical uses of the language, rather than current political hostilities, should determine its continuation or abolishment.

In contrast to the above arguments, some ethnic institutions and conservative church leaders argued for the continuation of German instruction as necessary for linguistic, religious, and cultural maintenance in German communities. Although under great pressure to display overtly patriotic sentiments, spokesmen from some of these organizations launched a counterattack against anti-German propaganda and harassment. For example, a delegation of German Lutheran church officials appealed to the Nebraska State Council of Defense to defend the use of German in their parochial schools (Luebke, 1974). Their arguments stressed the value of German as a means of sustaining churches and ethnic organizations, which, they believed, could be German speaking without being un-American or inhibiting the Americanization process.


Despite support for German instruction from some public and private entities both within and outside the German-speaking community, “for every prominent person who espoused moderation there was another . . . who declared” the benefits of hating all things German (Luebke, 1974, p. 253). Those opposing German instruction, even as a foreign language at the secondary level, believed monolingualism and monoculturalism to be necessary prerequisites for American identity and national safety.

World War I Americanization efforts led to widespread objection to the continued use of German, either in private or public spheres. Education became the focal point for much of this debate because “it was during this period that, for the first time, an ideological link was established between speaking ‘good English’ and being a ‘good American’” (Crawford, 1998, p. 112). Schooling was thought to be the ideal venue for eliminating foreign languages and sentiments and instead inculcating immigrants with American values through the English language. Building upon new, linguistic definitions of “American” and “German,” critics of German instruction supported the acquisition of English, to the exclusion of any other tongue, as a means of social control and a tool for unifying popular opinion.

Efforts to eliminate German language and culture were often justified because the use of German was directly associated with anti-American sentiment (Hartmann, 1948). As Wiley (2000) explained, speaking a foreign language, or even having a foreign accent, became a marker of potentially un-American loyalty. According to this logic, any use of German was proof of seditious activity. Popular political cartoons in the wartime era depicted German speakers as pro-German in sentiment despite outward displays of patriotism. For example, the newspaper cartoon, “Camouflage,” included in Luebke’s Bonds of Loyalty (1974), portrays a man flying the American flag but secretly hoping for a German victory. Germans were thus caught in a double-bind: They were suspected of disloyalty if they did not support the war but were often accused of subterfuge if they did so enthusiastically. Speaking German was therefore sufficient cause for charges of anti-Americanism, regardless of an individual’s actual behavior or intent. Additionally, the presence of the German language in print was also deemed a direct threat to American loyalty. Nebraska, for example, voted to remove all German books from their libraries because the language in which they were written was “proof of their propaganda value for Germans” (Luebke, p. 222). Furthermore, the Nebraska State Council of Defense argued that “the foreign language papers, the sectional school training, and the Germanic propaganda emanating from pulpits occupied by Kaiser agents” caused disloyalty (Wiley, 1998, p. 222).

By equating language and loyalty, nativists believed that the anti-American sentiment caused by German language use was due in large part to the inextricability of language and thought. According to L. D. Coffman, the University of Minnesota’s dean of the College of Education in 1918, “what the root is to the tree . . . the German language is to Germany” (Wiley, 1998, p. 227). Therefore, not only was the German language inherently political, but its use was inseparable from pro-German ideology. Patriotic associations like the National Security League and the American Defense Society campaigned against foreign language advertising in New York subways because it was associated with “aliens . . . neither speaking nor thinking American” (Crawford, 2004, p. 90). In relation to education, acquisition of the German language was potentially traitorous because, as H. M. Gordy explained in a 1918 article for the Educational Review, “it would be impossible to study German without being influenced to a certain extent by German thought” (Wiley, 1998, p. 262). Additionally, in defending the state law restricting German-language instruction, the Nebraska Supreme Court contended that teaching students in German at an early age “was to educate them so that they must always think in that language, and, as a consequence, naturally inculcate in them the ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of this country” (Meyer v. State of Nebraska, 1923). Ohio governor James M. Cox supported removing all uses of German from elementary schools because its presence in schools was “a distinctive menace to Americanism, and a part of a plot formed by the German government to make the school children loyal to it” (Crawford, p. 90). Thus, the condemnation of German use during wartime became linked to larger ideological concerns that equated non-English languages with anti-American sentiment. By establishing a causal link between acquisition of a foreign language and the development of anti-American thinking, opponents of German instruction defined American interests as best served by English alone.

In addition to establishing a connection between German-language acquisition and pro-German loyalties, opponents attacked the language itself as uncivilized and impure. In a wartime publication called Throw Out the German Language and All Disloyal Teachers, the American Defense Society claimed,

The time for sentiment about “Goethe and Schiller” and “you-can’t-make-war-on-a-language” has gone by. We can make war on the Hun language and we will. Any language which produces a people of ruthless conquestadors [sic], such as now exists in Germany, is not a fit language to teach to clean and pure American boys and girls. (Moore, 1937, p. 34)

H. M. Gordy warned that German “does not produce speakers with necessary refinement and civilizing impulses as needed for our society” and in fact warps the mind of German speakers with “Teutomania” (Wiley, 1998, p. 226). In 1918, New Hampshire’s state superintendent of education noted that American students themselves realized these deficiencies and for that reason elected not to take German during the war: “It is not to be wondered at that the very language of such a nation should become a stench in the nostrils of decent high school scholars and a stumbling block in the path of their progress” (Moore, 1937, p. 488). Thus, nativists argued for the abolishment of all German instruction by associating linguistic and political identities, suggesting both the inherent inferiority of the German language and its ability to “cause” pro-German and anti-American sentiment.

By using language to define the parameters of American identity and loyalty, those opposing German instruction in schools saw its elimination as a valuable source of social control. Drawing on the belief that “the unity and cultural integrity of the United States cannot abide cultural, including linguistic, pluralism” (Ricento, 1998, p. 89), nativists believed that the eradication of German instruction would end subversion, avoid German propaganda, and promote Americanization, thereby creating greater unity of thought and opinion. Enforcing linguistic homogeneity through education was seen as an ideal means by which to achieve these ends.

The teaching of German was thought to be an important tactic used by Germany to instill anti-American sentiment and promote pro-German activities. Therefore, schools were seen as optimal places to impose the English monolingualism necessary to eliminate foreign conspiracies in the United States (Crawford, 1998). According to Luebke (1974),

The gravest danger to America, according to the superpatriots . . . was the potential perversion of America’s youth by German-language instruction in schools and by German language textbooks and library books. How could a child learn to hate the Kaiser, as proper patriotism required, when he was daily confronted with laudatory references to him, his people, and their language and culture? Clearly, the German language had to be banished . . . lest these institutions serve the insidious purposes of German propaganda. (pp. 250–251)

German teaching materials and pedagogical methods were understood to be inherently seditious, and the continuation of such teaching was equated with actively promoting pro-German sentiments. As Moore (1937) observed, the danger of propaganda lay in its potential to create positive images of Germany, “and if favorable impressions were created then the pupils were injured. An active hatred of Germany, apparently, had to be created” (p. 141). Even after the war, German propaganda was still seen as a threat to American unity and safety; despite the cessation of wartime aggression in 1919, journalist Gustavus Ohlinger continued to criticize German instruction in American schools, calling it “the keystone of subversion” (Luebke, 1974, p. 312).

German instruction was also opposed because it interfered with Americanization efforts, which were deemed necessary to develop loyalty among foreign-born residents. Americanization was understood by its followers to be the “the civilian side of national defense” and thus vital in mobilizing the nation for war (Higham, 1988/1992). According to Ricento (2005), “Language was viewed by Americanizers as the essential instrumentality through which and by which ‘thought sharing’ could be accomplished, ensuring that a common understanding about American identity (through English) would be shared by the native born and immigrant, irrespective of their ‘ethnicity’” (p. 353).

Nativists believed that American ideals could only be communicated in English, and so without uniformity of language, any attempts at Americanization would necessarily be subverted. At the height of anti-German language propaganda, the German press, schools, and churches were seen as “intent upon retarding the assimilation process, thereby making 100 percent Americanism impossible” (Luebke, 1974, p. 251). Therefore, any teaching of German was viewed as directly opposing the Americanization efforts that the nativists saw as vital to winning the war.

Those objecting to German instruction in education defined American identity and loyalty in linguistic terms, creating an image of the German language as seditious and obstructionist. In a wartime climate of strong anti-German sentiment, those who opposed German instruction successfully agitated for a variety of English-only measures, and those who supported moderation were largely ignored. Although most of these policies were overturned by the mid-1920s, English-only measures had a lasting impact on German-language instruction and maintenance in the United States, largely as a result of the pervasive nature and tenacity of the arguments on which they were based.


A legal challenge to Nebraska’s 1919 Siman Act, which outlawed all teaching in non-English languages before ninth grade, reached the Supreme Court in 1923—by which time, Crawford (2004) contended, much of the anti-German frenzy in the United States had begun to subside. The suit was filed by German Lutherans on behalf of a public school teacher in Hampton, Nebraska, who was fined for teaching a Bible story in German during regular school hours. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, arguing that “the liberty of persons to teach a language, to learn any language, or to hire a person to teach their children any language, falls under the protection of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment” (Schmidt, 2000, p. 147). The Supreme Court also struck down similar laws in other states on the basis of this ruling.

A sense of ambivalence pervades much of the analyses of Meyer v. Nebraska’s (1923) contribution to language maintenance, especially as it affected German communities. Although Kloss (1977) claimed the ruling represents a significant victory, especially for private schools, others are more skeptical of the scope and impact of the decision. Fishman (2004) described the decision as one that fails to provide adequate protection for minority languages; it “leaves functionally and contextuality disadvantaged languages just as disadvantaged as they were before. These languages remain exposed to the Darwinian law of the linguistic jungle: the strong survive and, in competition with the strong, the weak die off” (p. 421).

In addition, the decision confirmed the dominant status of English by refusing to challenge the state’s right to require English as the primary language of instruction; the ruling, in fact, only protected the existence of non-English languages as a supplementary form of instruction in U.S. schools (Heath, 1981). Finally, critics of the Meyer ruling explained that the damage done during World War I to non-English languages, particularly German, was irreparable, and that this legal reversal had little impact on language use in education after the war.


Demographic and rhetorical shifts within the German community contributed to the marginalization of German instruction in public and private schools after World War I. Immigration from Germany declined throughout the 1890s and early 1900s, which, when coupled with a highly restrictive immigration law enacted in 1924, greatly reduced the number of non-English speakers in the United States. As fewer German students arrived in public elementary schools unable to speak English, there was less likelihood that a critical mass of parents could petition schools to reinstitute German as a medium of instruction, and because of anti-German rhetoric, there was less desire to do so. At the secondary level, German as a foreign language did survive World War I, although the legacy of decreased enrollments, combined with the wartime reassignment of many German teachers to other subjects, likely contributed to its slow growth after the war relative to French and Spanish.6 Many parochial schools, however, were dramatically affected by World War I language restrictions and anti-German rhetoric. They largely eliminated German as part of a purposeful shift to English as the language of the church community:

In the past, German language and culture had been retained by the church fathers to promote group cohesion and loyalty. But the intolerance of a nation at war had demonstrated that this policy was no longer possible. Besides, a rapid transition to English was mandatory if the loyalty of the younger generation was to be retained. (Luebke, 1974, p. 315)

Thus, the decision was made in many churches to use English as the medium of communication in church services and devotional materials. Because the teaching of German in parochial schools was predicated upon its use in the religious context, little justification remained for its instructional use, except as a foreign language. Therefore, reduced demand within the German community itself for German instruction, in both public and private schools, was caused by shifts in immigration patterns and in orientation to the mainstream community, the latter largely dictated by the increasing pressure to conform to an English-only American identity.

In assessing how the war affected German speakers socially and ideologically, one must first recognize that Germans, as the largest minority in the United States at the time, were not a monolithic community. That is, Germans viewed Americanization efforts during the war differently according to their varied political and religious affiliations (or lack thereof), and the intensity of anti-German hysteria, which varied from community to community (Luebke, 1974). However, the extent to which World War I assimilated German Americans, linguistically and culturally, is rarely challenged. Kloss (1966) provided one indication of the overwhelming shift to English: Although nine million German speakers lived in the United States in 1910, only 50,000 of their descendants under 18 years of age spoke German as a native language by the mid-1960s.

According to Wiley (2000), this shift away from German linguistic and cultural identities was indicative of a new national ideology, one that was no longer tolerant of linguistic or cultural pluralism. By demanding monolingualism and monoculturalism of its citizens, “the dominant ideology had, in effect, absorbed several of the long held tenets of nativism,” which had previously been representative only of “extremist views of a reactionary minority within the Anglo-dominant group” (p. 83). English became a defining characteristic of American identity, thereby devaluing the German heritage as, at best, peripheral to participation in American society. Additionally, the continuation of German instruction in public and private schools became firmly established as an “optional” foreign language endeavor, unconnected with cultural or linguistic maintenance.

The demographic, economic, and cultural forces that had previously encouraged German cultural and linguistic maintenance were, for the most part, destroyed by anti-German activities and pressures during the war. For many, the benefits of assimilating into English-only society far outweighed those that German cultural or linguistic maintenance could bring, and as a result, Germans lost much of their desire to reestablish the strong network of German organizations and support structures that were predominant before the war (Luebke, 1974). Hawgood (1940) noted that the pressure to assimilate created an American identity that left no room for internal diversity, linguistic or otherwise:

The German-Americans, as German-Americans, did not emerge from the war at all. The war had so enhanced the distance between the German and the American that no hyphen could stretch from the one to the other. The German-Americans had no further reason for clinging to the Deutschtum 7 at such great sacrifice to themselves. It was perceived by all, at last, that German-Americanism was obsolete. (pp. 297–298)

Without distinct functional purposes for German, little support remained for its continuation as a language of instruction at prewar levels. Largely because of the association of foreign languages with un-American loyalties, “learning in languages other than English now seemed less than ‘American’” (Crawford, 2004, p. 90). As a result, Luebke (1974) contended, students attending school in the 1920s through the 1940s suffered from “a sort of cultural amnesia” (p. 327) in that they quickly assimilated into mainstream American culture and spoke very little German.

During World War I, national leaders, state lawmakers, and local officials capitalized on nativist rhetoric to define American identity as linguistically restricted to monolingual English speakers. The successful enactment of English-only language policies and proliferation of Americanization rhetoric resulted in significant changes in the role of non-English languages in public and private education. Although German has regained some of its status as a foreign language at the secondary level, its educational use as a mother tongue in the United States, with few exceptions, ended during the war because of a climate that produced linguistically intolerant and overtly anti-German policies. Significantly, the ending of the German “bilingual tradition” (Kloss, 1977) indicates the strength and tenacity of an ideological shift toward the use of English monolingualism as a marker of American identity and values.


Contentious debates over the use of minority languages in education and other realms continue today, largely operating within this same paradigm. Although the teaching of foreign languages to monolingual English speakers is now widely accepted, the education of language minority students continues to be highly controversial. Bilingual education programs grew after the passage of the federal Bilingual Education Act in 1968 and subsequent legal decisions such as Lau v. Nichols (1974), but, according to Fillmore (2004), by the mid 1970s, today’s acrimonious debates about bilingual programs had already begun. Most recently, language restrictions in the realm of education have been accomplished primarily through voter initiatives—such as those passed in California (1998), Arizona (2000), and Massachusetts (2002)—that limit or prohibit instruction in non-English languages.

“Official English” movements, beginning in the early 1980s, relied on arguments for English monolingualism that are reminiscent of those put forth in the World War I era. Alarmist rhetoric that there is an “enemy within our gates” was echoed by the lobbying organization U.S. English (1984/1992), which in the mid 1980s asserted that “now English is under attack, and we must take affirmative steps to guarantee that it continues to be our common heritage to avoid a gradual loss of national unity” (p. 144). These proposed steps, including a restriction of non-English languages in governmental and educational spheres and a tightening of naturalization requirements, are similar to those proposed during World War I and earlier. English-only proponents also continued to draw on the argument that multilingualism threatens American solidarity; S. I. Hayakawa (1985/1992), senator from California and founder of U.S. English, defended his English language amendment to the constitution by claiming that the country needed “one official language and one only, so that we can unite as a nation” (p. 100). Furthermore, modern English-only advocates have claimed that supporters of bilingual education seek to undermine existing power relations, much as the supporters of German-language instruction were suspected of sabotaging national stability. Fundraising materials used by the U.S. English movement have described these advocates as “foreign-language pressure groups” who “would like to turn language minorities into permanent power blocs” (Wright, 1983/1992, p. 128). Although the official English movement declined somewhat in power and influence by the late 1980s, this same rhetoric continues in more recent efforts to declare English as an official language, both at state and federal levels, and to proscribe non-English languages as media of instruction via voter initiatives.

As Paulston (1990) noted, educational language policy decisions “are made primarily on political and economic grounds and reflect the values of those who have the power to make them” (p. 187). English-only efforts throughout the 20th century, as well as contemporary discussions of immigration and language use, continue to operate from within a paradigm of monolingual Americanism, creating a situation in which language minority students’ home languages and cultures are often deemed irrelevant, or even detrimental, to their identity as “Americans.” Educational language policies and practices are useful indicators of the degree of social acceptance given to minorities and minority languages, and the extent to which linguistic assimilation is perceived as necessary to achieve a national identity. Although German language restriction in the 20th century is a dramatic example of the influence of political forces on language use, it nonetheless conforms to a consistent pattern of minority language loss in the United States and elsewhere, in which power and social control are enacted through linguistic means.


1 Punitive measures taken against students speaking non-English languages in U.S. schools are well documented. For example, Ricento (1998) described the assignment of detention for Spanish speakers “caught” speaking their native language in Texas schools in the 20th century. More dramatically, Yamamoto and Zepeda (2004) described the effects of physical punishment on Native Americans attending boarding schools in the mid-20th century, who as adults “still remember their boarding school days when one word of their ancestral language out of their mouth resulted in their mouth being rinsed with ivory soap to wash out their ‘bad’ language. So they encouraged their children to learn English, not their ancestral languages” (p. 175).

2 It should be noted that Native American languages were never tolerated to the same degree as those of European immigrants, especially in the realm of education, in which English language instruction was viewed as vital to the Native American “civilization” process (Crawford, 1998; Dicker, 1996; Wiley, 2000). See Adams (1995) for a description of the varied forms of educational “solutions” that policy makers developed for this purpose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

3 A certain amount of controversy surrounds Kloss (1960, 1977). Wiley (2000) explained that the revelation that Kloss’s career as a scholar began in Germany under the Third Reich potentially problematizes the interpretation of his work. However, in recognition that Kloss’s research still represents “the major source of reference in much of the literature on U.S. language policy” (p. 70), this article draws upon his scholarship.

4 Other German-speaking religious groups, such as the Mennonites (see Luebke, 1974), had experiences quite different from German Lutherans or Catholics, but for the purposes of this research, the two largest religious groups will remain the focus of the discussion.

5 The Know-Nothing party was an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic political organization, prominent in the mid 1850s, that advocated the exclusion of those groups from public office and the extension of the naturalization period from 5 to 21 years (Miller, 2006). The “nativist” character of groups such as the Know-Nothing party is expressed in efforts to protect the interests of native-born Americans against those of immigrants.

6 Since its wartime decline from 24.4% of all foreign-language students in 1915 to .6% in 1922, German has never again constituted more than 3.3% of foreign language enrollments.

7 Deutschtum refers to a sense of “Germanness”, or German nationality. See Hawgood (1940) for a discussion of the ways in which German-Americans defined this term in the 1800s and early 1900s.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 6, 2008, p. 1241-1268
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