Our ancestors all managed to learn English

Increasingly, studies indicate that the United States is very far from being the best educated country in the world. This blog will get to that, but perhaps a few “diversions” will help in the final comments. It’s a long haul, I’m afraid, but I hope you hang in there.

My Kowald ancestors came to this country–legally I hope–some years before the Civil War. They wound up in Buffalo. (I will refrain from the comment about Buffalo in “A Chorus Line.” You can look it up). My grandfather, Eugene, was born there in the early 1850s. The family was from Darmstadt-Hesse in Germany (or whatever they called it in those days).

From the same area was the Ernst family, of my grandmother Elizabeth. They got here about the same time and stayed in New York City, where she was born a bit later in the 1850s. As far as I know, the families did not know each other in the home country. I think the Ernsts were here legally, too.

I doubt that either family spoke English when they came here, but I assume they learned the language fairly quickly. I never heard my father speak any German, so I assume little or none of it was spoken in the Kowald-Ernst household. My mother came from Russian Poland in the very early years of the 20th century. She spoke some Polish, I think, but I never heard any. And, like almost everyone else on the Lower East Side, everyone knew some Yiddish, Italian, German. You name it, you got it.

But the point is all them spoke English and tried to lose any accents ASAP.

I know of one fairly affluent family (who got off in Hoboken–upper class!–rather than Ellis Island, where my mother landed) who arrived here about the same time. There were three boys and three girls and then another girl was born in New York City very early. But they never talked about that. They wanted to be Americans and they quickly made the transition. Indeed, they sent their eldest son to an upstate military academy, so that he would become a Yankee as soon as possible. To his dying days he maintained a military-like posture.

All of these children spoke without accents.

A dear Forest Hills friend of ours, who died not long ago, came to this country in the late 1930s to escape Hitler and his murderers. She came with her mother and older sibling. Her father, a physician who owned a hospital in Berlin, had come the year before.

She always boasted that, knowing not a bit of English when she got here, she became an English-speaker within six weeks of getting here. She went on to be a math teacher and an assistant principal in the New York City school system. No accent.

Let me be clear: We don’t need to pass laws or amendments to make English the official language of our country. It is, defacto. And, I honor those who can speak and write it and have that facility in other languages. I don’t.

But it concerns me when I hear a report about a 60-some-year-old woman, who won a battle against a greedy landlord. She had been here some 30 years, but her comments had to be translated by an interpreter. I take that to be a comment, in a way, on our education system and our immigration system.

If you are born here, you are allowed to vote, regardless (I believe) of your state of education. If you have passed a pretty stiff naturalization examination (I think some of our high school students might not pass it), you know about civics, government, history. And, you are expected to read and write the English language.

I know of one instance in which the naturalization may be a bit suspect, considering the new citizen’s ability in reading and writing. But let that go.

I have also pointed to an incident in the choosing of grand juries in Queens some years ago. One of those called–all citizens–asked for an exemption because he might not be able to understand the English in the cases. He was a naturalized citizen. The judge refused his request.

But enough for now. I thank you for following this far.

The second section will deal with education, old and new, holidays and a few other matters of the kind.

I hope you will return for more meanderings.

Je Suis Charlie

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