This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Friday, February 3, 2006

February 3, 2006 - Do Immigrants Need Libraries?

I don't know much about my maternal great-grandfather. His name was Wilhelm Waack. He came from Germany, and settled in Michigan.

Later, he became a reasonably successful businessman, filling an important social need. He was a bootlegger.

My grandfather, Wilhelm's son, spoke some German, and could read it a little. Sometimes, I remember neighborhood boys would ask him to translate a line from a WWII movie. But it was definitely a second language for him.

My mother knew only a phrase or two. So it took just three generations for English to completely replace "the mother tongue" of the Fatherland.

According to the fascinating book "Do You Speak American?" by Robert MacNeil and William Cran, German was once a very popular language in the United States. By the turn of the last century, 1900, it was spoken by one American in ten. Incidentally, that's just about how many are now speaking Spanish.

But in 1915, the sinking of the Lusitania led to American outrage. About this time, many German names were quietly changed. Stein became Stone.

Even food names changed: Frankfurters became hot dogs. Sauerkraut became, for some, "liberty cabbage," anticipating the "freedom fries" of our own time.

Public schools banned the teaching of German, which I find truly odd. You would think teaching people to speak the language of an enemy might prove useful in a time of war. But many schools instead encouraged students to learn Spanish, because it would be "more useful in business."

And come to think of it, you can't take Arabic in our high schools today, can you? Nor Mandarin, which has more native speakers than any language in the world.

At any rate, German is no longer a popular language in our country. The waves of German immigration are over. Now the top language group of immigrants is Spanish.

By 2020 (according to some estimates) one in five residents of the United States will be of Spanish heritage, mostly Mexican. In Denver, today, about 35% of the population is Hispanic; it's 55% in the public schools. Twenty percent of Denver residents speak Spanish at home.

This worries some people. Hence the "English only" movement.

Linguists have been studying assimilation rates of Hispanic immigrants, and have found something surprising. It's just like the Germans. Within three generations, the children don't speak Spanish anymore.

Why then, is there such growth of Spanish newspapers, radio shows, and TV channels?

Because the immigration continues. People who stay in this country get assimilated, but there are a lot of new arrivals, still in the first wave of the language group, like my great-grandfather.

What does the issue of immigration have to do with libraries?

For one thing, our state legislature is talking about some anti-immigration measures, perhaps including the denial of public services to illegal immigrants. It's hard to know what that might mean.

Will it be OK for libraries to buy Spanish language materials?

Will it be all right to let non-native people learn English through the library's volunteer-based English as a Second Language (ESL) tutoring program?

I hope people remember that the public library is not actually charged with immigration enforcement. We do, however, greatly assist in the education of new citizens.

I hope people also can support the idea that we need more foreign language materials in our schools and libraries, not fewer. English literature, and American literature, are rich and deep. But there are other world literatures, and most of us know nothing about them.

Personally, I'm opposed to some new form of linguistic Prohibition. The idea reminds me of Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," a book that was about, among other things, people who smuggled forbidden texts. These people were known as "bookleggers."

History is a circle.

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