There is a concoction of self-satisfied myth and ignorance about English that is served up at Sunday services, on the floor of the Texas Legislature, in newspaper editorials, and in political party platforms with the alacrity of nachos at a high school football game. This myth holds that English in Texas was God-given, inevitable, and inherently superior. In the immortal words of Ma Ferguson, “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.” Thanks to Mel Gibson, everybody knows that Jesus didn’t speak English but Aramaic. (He probably knew Hebrew and Greek as well.) Maybe if Gibson had made a movie about the multilingual Alamo, where German, French, and Spanish-speaking men died alongside those who spoke English, it would be easier to point out the obvious and make it stick: Texas is populated by recent immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, slaves, and conquered natives. Contrary to what the Republicans are writing in their political platforms these days, this state has never been monolingual—and it never will be.
So if you were going to tell the real story of English in Texas, which is really the story of English and other languages, too, you could very well begin with a Spanish grammar book that was stolen from Stephen F. Austin by a Comanche war party. Accompanied by two other settlers, in April of 1822, the founder of the earliest Texas colony set out on horseback for Mexico City; despite warnings, they went without military escort. Austin rode with his grammar tied to his saddle, so he could study as he rode. Two days south of San Antonio, they stopped so that Austin could make coffee. Almost immediately, Indians saw smoke from the fire, found the travelers, and took their saddles, bridles, food, weapons, and baggage.
After a century of warring against, trading with, and living among Mexicans in the missions, some Comanches spoke Spanish, which is what Austin spoke when he confronted the thieves. Later he swore it had saved his life. “Assuming great composure,” his cousin Mary Austin Holley would later write, “he went up to the chief, and addressing him in Spanish and the few words of Indian he knew, he declared himself to be an American, and demanded to know if their nation was at war with the Americans.” The chief let them go, returning most of their things—but not the Spanish grammar.
Presumably Austin found a replacement. After only a few weeks in Mexico City, he was writing long letters in simple but grammatical Spanish, according to Gregg Cantrell, a historian at Texas Christian University and the author of Stephen F. Austin, Empresario of Texas. Other Americans living in Mexico City came to rely on Austin’s translations, even though he appeared to have no particular gift for language except motivation, hard work, and the fact that it had saved his neck. (He also came from a multilingual family; his father, Moses Austin, spoke French).
Austin had gone to the Mexican capital to pay a visit to officials there and reassert the terms of the Texas colony; Spanish would be an important personal and political asset. He wrote letters to his brother, Brown Austin, urging him to learn the language: “study the familiar phrases and lessons, and write them, also repeat your verbs as you learn them to Francisco or some other who can correct your pronunciation.” For the rest of his career, Austin spoke a “facile Spanish with all the phrases of gentility,” according to historian T.R. Fehrenbach. Austin would boast of his ability to “beat around the bush” (as he put it) in Spanish and as a member of the legislature of the state of Coahuila y Tejas in the 1830s, he proposed a school, an “Institute for Modern Languages,” where Anglo children would learn Spanish, English, and French (no evidence exists that such a school was actually founded).
Although his language abilities are well documented, Austin’s motives remain a matter of historical debate. Some scholars see him using linguistic flexibility to serve inflexible political goals. As University of Texas-Pan American linguist Glenn Martinez has written, “Austin understood that knowledge of Spanish permitted the empresarios [colonist contractors] the most negotiating flexibility with the Mexican government to favor the colonists.” Other scholars, such as Cantrell, insist that Austin’s motivations, linguistic and otherwise, were more complex than a desire to conquer. Whatever his motives, one fact remains clear: He was one of the few officials of the Texas colony who ever bothered to learn the language of their adopted country. Although they had signed contracts dictating that the official language of the colony was Spanish and that they would open schools to teach the language, most of the Anglo settlers huddled in English-only enclaves, stubbornly refusing to assimilate to the dominant culture of the country in which they were a minority. (In Texas, Anglos outnumbered Mexicans 5 to 1, but in the state of Coahuila y Tejas, Anglos were outnumbered.) By 1836 Mary Austin Holley wrote that “you hear nothing but English,” from the Texans. “[I]t is about as great an accomplishment to speak Spanish there, as it is French in our own States.”
The Texas Revolution itself had been thoroughly bilingual. All the letters that revolutionaries wrote to Mexican officials were in Spanish. Spanish didn’t exactly wither away with Independence, either. Even after the Texas Republic was founded, it was assumed that Spanish would be widely used, particularly since the Anglo revolutionaries had been joined by liberal Spaniards. An early charter of San Antonio ordered that city employees be bilingual. President Sam Houston (who had run away from home as a boy and became bilingual in Cherokee, though he never learned Spanish very well) gave several towns the power to establish schools, and left undefined whether schools had to teach in English.
Spanish newspapers continued to flourish. The Catholic Church was very pro-Spanish, and Protestant preachers who came to Texas to proselytize realized the need to speak Spanish and distribute Spanish-language Bibles. Yet the legal status of Spanish speakers went downhill almost immediately—in 1841, the Texas Legislature suspended the printing of laws in Spanish. However, by 1856 laws were again printed in Spanish, and the Texas constitution of 1875 was printed in English, German, Spanish, and Czech. Even the Constitution of the Confederacy was printed in German and Spanish. Texan law and politics was multilingual because it was politically expedient to be so, not because Texans were tolerant multiculturalists. George W. Bush may have been the last Texas Republican to grasp this fact.
As Texas A&M historian Carlos Blanton shows in his recent book, The Strange History of Bilingual Education in Texas (Yale, 2005), English didn’t completely crowd out other languages—there were places where law and ideology did not penetrate, places like the family and the classroom. Then, as now, being American and speaking English were not necessarily synonymous. Blanton stresses that 19th century Texas was no multicultural paradise, at least by modern standards. But thanks to a radically Jeffersonian approach to education that left local communities free to establish public schools as they saw fit, bilingualism and bilingual education flourished—not only in Spanish, but in German, Czech, French, and Polish—at least until the 1880s. The diversity that resulted from this ultimate form of local school control, writes Blanton, was “dizzying.” Spanish was a classroom language (sometimes to the exclusion of English) in public and parochial schools all along the border from Brownsville to El Paso, as well as in San Antonio and Corpus Christi. In addition, small private schools called escuelitas sprang up, partly because parents were disgusted with the quality of public schools, partly out of resistance to Anglo domination. In 1892 there were 40 escuelitas in Webb County alone.
Meanwhile German-English schools, public and private, were established in Austin, New Braunfels, San Antonio, in rural Comal County, along the southeastern coastal plains, and in Victoria and Gillespie counties, among others. Czech schools were also numerous and in the southeastern town of Panna Maria, the oldest Polish settlement in the United States, a Polish school existed until the 1920s. But animosity among the ethnic communities ran high. “I don’t regard the 19th century as a utopian bilingual time,” Blanton said in a recent interview. “That bilingual tradition was growing on awfully rocky soil, and it was subject to all kinds of hostile people and hostile ideas. It was only a matter of time until it was eradicated.”
At this point the history of language in Texas takes an interesting turn. The conventional view of American history attributes the outlawing of bilingual education to the rise of assimilationist ideologies in the early 20th century and the xenophobia inspired by World War I. But it was modern educators devoted to progress who finally did in bilingual education. The bilingual schools had long been a public headache for education officials, who complained about the Czech and German schools as much as the Spanish ones. As Blanton characterizes the views of the time, “too many local liberties retarded ‘progress’ and could only be circumvented through righteous regulation by trained experts.” Starting in the 1880s, those experts imposed educational reforms such as standard curricula, teacher certification, and top-down school administration—all of which spelled the death of bilingual classrooms and community schools.
But what kind of teaching went on in those schools, and was their demise a good thing? “There’s not a lot of evidence about the community schools,” Blanton says. “The thing that most characterizes the instruction in these community schools, if I had to use one word, I’d call it experimental. If I had to use another word, I’d have to call it amateur.” But he doesn’t use that word in a negative light. Community schools were about “people doing the best they can.” For instance, at a German school in Comal County, one teacher taught in English from Monday until mid-day Wednesday. The other teacher taught in German for the rest of the week, not because such a schedule was based in any educational theory, but because that’s what the teachers knew how to do. At another school in Bellville, the German teacher taught English as if it were a classical language like Latin, asking students to translate sentences from German to English and back. This teaching was haphazard and unprofessional. Yet as Blanton argues, most public education in the 19th century was haphazard and unprofessional; communities clung to their bilingual schools, which managed to produce people who were successful members of a society that was mostly agrarian. And, it’s important to note, thoroughly American.
The new, modern, English-only curriculum appealed to those who feared urban immigrant ghettoes and thought that linguistic assimilation would help break them up. But immigrant languages such as German persisted the longest not in cities but in rural ethnic enclaves like New Braunfels. Today, Texas’s German past has been neutralized into a quaint ethnicity celebrated by wurst festivals. It’s easy to forget that Germans accounted for half of all immigration to the state in the 19th century, and that as late as 1940 over 86 percent of second-generation Germans in Texas could say they had grown up speaking German. (Incidentally, as late as 1960 New Braunfels had the most hours of German language radio broadcast in the entire United States.)
“Of course, immigrants look more desirable after a couple of decades or a couple of generations than they did upon first arriving in the U.S.,” says Walter Kamphoefner, a historian at Texas A&M, who has studied the economic success of German speakers in the United States. “The good immigrants are always the old immigrants, and the bad immigrants are always the new ones, even if the same groups and even the same individuals over time move from one category to another.”
There was a time when the patriotic loyalty of ethnic Germans was in question, and when their highly-visible tendency to live in enclaves was feared. But people who held on to their heritage language did not necessarily remain poor or have limited social mobility. Analyzing data from the 1940 U.S. Census, which asked respondents for their “mother tongue,” or the principal language spoken at home during their childhood, Kamphoefner showed that German speakers were more likely to own their own homes than to rent them; they also tended not to move far from where they were born. Thus, they were economically and socially stable. Most were rural and self-employed (that is, they were farmers or skilled craftspeople), though young German-Americans were also moving into white-collar work in large numbers. English speakers had slightly higher incomes (by only 8 to 15 percent), but the census didn’t collect data about farmers’ income, which may have been substantial. Of course, Germans had other advantages that other immigrants didn’t: They were white, and they were literate (even if only in German; literacy skills transfer from one language to another).
Which brings us back to the present—by way of the 19th century. The social realities are far different than Republican xenophobes would have their constituents believe. We can glimpse the real history of English in this state in the image of that grammar book tied to Stephen Austin’s saddle and whisked away by the Comanche. It’s a history that acknowledges that language occupies no territory and possesses no motives; it spreads like a weed and cares only about its perpetuity. So while the public discourse this year is full of talk about immigrants learning English, legislating a “national language,” or singing the national anthem in Spanish, it’s important to remember that millions of interactions take place every day between people who speak English and people who don’t—the stuff of ordinary life that never makes it into myths and official histories. That’s what we would have witnessed if we had been there the moment that Austin was arguing with the Comanche chief.
And that’s what we can witness today down at the Home Depot, where Spanish instructions on bags of cement are more prominent than instructions written in English, and where young Anglo men know the Spanish words related to tools and construction—words that most native English speakers never even learn in their own language. It’s not a matter of law or policy. The life of language persists in scenes of daily life that are as transient as wildflowers: they bloom, flourish, and die in multitudes, invisible and unrecorded. In many ways they know us better than we know ourselves.
Michael Erard is a contributing writer and lives in Austin. He has written about language topics for The New York Times, Wired, The New Republic, and other publications.