Historically Speaking: Language challenges for early immigrants
During the early 1900s and the influx of immigrants to the United States from many countries in Europe, this country became a melting pot of many nationalities. This was certain to produce frustration and difficulties for the people already in the U.S., but more so for the immigrants who had to learn a new language. And, I must add, that the English language was, and is, a complicated and very difficult language to master.
Northern Wisconsin became the home of many Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Poles and Lithuanians, and many of these people clumsily learned the main important words, but still spoke their native languages. They quickly established their own churches, some continuing to have sermons in their own native tongue as well as in English.
As soon as these immigrants established their homes here and their children attended our schools, words and phrases were brought home, and the parents and older relatives slowly began to attempt to speak the English language. However, many of the families continued to speak in their native tongue in their own home and in gatherings between their own people. The only English heard in the homes, in many instances, was between the young people and the boys and girls in the families.
I can only relate the language problems in my own home and the difficulties I had in learning proper and correct English. My parents came to the U.S. in 1908 from Denmark, and settled first in South Bend, Ind., as they had “sponsors” there to help them find housing and employment. There were many Danes already in that area, and they often said it felt almost like being back in Denmark, except for the ordeal of learning a new language. They lived in a boarding house until they could find a place to rent, and here they learned the basic English words around the dinner table. I can only imagine the frustration as they went job hunting, using their limited English as they tried to express themselves adequately to would-be employers.
My mother did get a job in a shirt factory, and my father worked at the Oliver Plow Works. As time went on, they bought books and magazines and newspapers which were very helpful in learning important words. My mother learned many English words in the grocery store, where signs identified various foods. She told me many times the story of the immigrant woman who had just come to America and went to the grocery store for a dozen eggs, and just couldn’t pronounce “eggs” (and “eggs” is a hard word to pronounce phonetically). The woman got so frustrated because she couldn’t get the store clerk to understand what she wanted, so she “clucked” like a hen and got her message across. She went home with her eggs!
As I look back, my parents had good vocabularies, but the big problem was that the words were not pronounced right, although they knew the meanings. The most troublesome words were those beginning with the consonants “t” and “h”, such as: the, there, them, etc. In the Danish alphabet, there is no such combination of letters, and consequently those words were pronounced “da”, “dar” and “dem”. So it is no wonder that when I began first grade in school, I, too, had problems pronouncing the sound “th”. I had to sit in a corner, day after day, until I finally stopped crying and realized that I’d be there a long time if I didn’t make up my mind to learn to say those “problem” words. The story of “The Little Red Hen” was to me “Da Little Red Hen” until I finally conquered my problem and no longer was made fun of, and no longer sat in the corner. I have only sympathy and help for those children today that have speech problems.
My mother kept up a correspondence with her relatives in Denmark up until World War II, writing letters to her sister and brothers. After World War II all their correspondence stopped suddenly, and she never heard from any of her family again. I used to ponder over these letters from the “old country”, and could make out some of the words, but never was fluent in the language, either to read or write, and I could understand only very little of the spoken language. When I made my trip in 1993 to Denmark, I bought a dictionary for assistance with the language there.
My father’s youngest brother came to America in 1920 to live with my parents. He was only 14 years old, and one of the stipulations of the Immigration Service at Ellis Island was that if he lived with my parents in Wisconsin, he had to attend school and learn the English language. He was sent to the McNaughton School, sitting in the first grade with the little ones. Of course, he didn’t like this, and stayed only long enough to learn to speak and read English.
As we look back to the days of the immigration movement in the early 1900s to our area here in Wisconsin, we will have to admit that these “old country” people (from many countries in Europe” did a tremendous job in getting acquainted with the English language, even though they were hesitant and stubborn to drop completely their native tongue.
Our heritage in northern Wisconsin is rich because of the mingling on many nationalities and languages, and I have great respect for these early “pioneer immigrants” who came here and faced many difficulties, mainly the language barrier…but we all are much richer because of their heritage, and now “our” heritage to enjoy!