Last week the Senate displayed its patriotic fervor (and tried to appease anti-immigrant exclusionists) by declaring English our "national language." Well, duh. Perhaps they thought we hadn't noticed what most people speak. After that legislative flourish, they also declared English is the "common unifying language of the United States" but mandated that nothing in that declaration ''shall diminish or expand any existing rights" regarding multilingual services. That is, they tried to make sure their grand gesture did no real damage.
Our Senatorial weasels are walking a historically familiar tightrope. Every time the country has received a large influx of immigrants, those of us already here have tended to panic because the newcomers talk funny. This happened repeatedly in the 19th century as waves of Germans, Italians, and Slavs migrated to the industrial cities that are now the Rust Belt.
In particular, German was a major language in the United States until World War I. According to Mark Goldman's High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York, as early as the 1830's German speaking newcomers agitated to get their language taught in the public schools. The English-speaking city fathers rebuffed this agitation until 1866, but then hired German speaking teachers. The German speaking community maintained its cultural distinctiveness until well into the 20th century, finally succumbing to "Americanization" during World War I, ironically under the leadership of a mayor, Charles Fuhrmann, from a German background.
The Buffalo story is representative of most of the country in the same time period. It is hard now to imagine how widespread German language and culture was in this country:
That is, in 1910, roughly ten percent of the population spoke German in the home. And German was simply one among many new immigrant languages. Today we get bent out of shape because many newcomers speak Spanish. Very likely, some of those 19th century German speakers were the ancestors of our current partisans of English as a national language.
As with so many aspects of our current immigration panic, a look at history teaches that we should "get over it!"