The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Banning immigrants’ languages can backfire. Just ask Ohio and Indiana.

A mural in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati depicts scenes from the neighborhood's early builders and residents: German immigrants of the mid-19th century. (Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)

Swept up in the sauerkraut-is-now-liberty-cabbage nationalist hysteria surrounding World War I, Ohio and Indiana sought to force their large German minorities to assimilate by banning the German language in schools in 1919.

New evidence shows that their heavy-handed approach backfired.

The Supreme Court struck down the bans in 1923. But students who grew up under the bans were less likely to assimilate, according to an analysis by Stanford political scientist and economist Vicky Fouka soon to be published in the Review of Economic Studies.

Her research holds a lesson for those who would pressure newcomers into adopting an “American” identity. Armed with advanced analytical techniques and newly available census data, Fouka found that boys who grew up under the ban were more likely to marry another German and more likely to give their children German names. Because of how data was recorded, it is not yet possible to do similar analyses for women.

Fouka used a measure of a name’s relative frequency within ethnic groups to show that the ban caused names about as distinctively American as “Chris” to fall out of favor among German parents, replaced by names that were rated about as distinctively German as “Adalbert.”

Some of the most German names were Hans, August and Gustav, while uniquely non-German names included Clyde, Russell and Melvin.

Names which predict German origin, 1930

Most German namesLeast German names
1. Hans 1. Clyde
2. August 2. Russell
3. Gustav 3. Melvin
4. Karl 4. Leroy
5. Otto 5. Warren
6. Christian 6. Marvin
7. Hermann 7. Jim
8. Emil 8. Glenn
9. Adolph 9. Leslie
10. Conrad 10. Wayne
Source: Vicky Fouka, Stanford University

Boys who experienced language bans in school were enlistment age by the time the United States joined World War II, and Fouka’s analysis of Army data shows that they were less likely than other German Americans to volunteer to fight the Axis powers. “Their behavior at that time is a great indicator of attachment to German identity,” she said.

Germans’ backlash against assimilation was strongest among those with two German parents and those who lived in the most Lutheran areas. In that era, church membership provided a good estimate of a place’s German identity and institutions.

In the early 1900s, Americans saw German Americans as a model minority. They had built a thriving system of churches and schools, particularly in the rural Midwest. But when one of the kaiser’s U-boats torpedoed the Lusitania in 1915 and killed more than 1,000 people, 123 of them Americans, public sentiment turned.

Resentment built as the war progressed. By 1919, about 20 states had added English requirements. Indiana and Ohio went a step further, banning German from elementary schools to force the assimilation of people whom Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson derisively referred to as “hyphenated Americans.”

A century later, the immigrants’ reversal of fortune provided Fouka with nearly ideal circumstances for evaluating the effectiveness of forced assimilation. Because these language bans were inspired by armed conflict on a distant continent, Fouka could safely assume that the inspiration for the anti-German measures was entirely external.

To control for geographical differences in America’s German population, Fouka limited her analysis to border counties in Indiana and Ohio, and compared them with neighboring counties in Michigan, Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia and Pennsylvania -- states that didn’t ban German in all schools.

According to University of California at San Diego political scientist Claire Adida, Fouka’s approach adds to our understanding of how immigrants assimilate because it allows for measuring a policy’s impact while controlling for the effect of the job market, social conditions and other policy choices. Adida is the author of “Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies.”

Fouka is one of a constellation of scholars using historical data and sophisticated new methods to understand how immigrants, particularly those from Europe, assimilated in the United States.

She drew on the methodology used by Ran Abramitzky of Stanford University, Leah Boustan of Princeton University and Katherine Eriksson of the University of California at Davis, who recently showed that international immigrants coming to California between 1985 and 1995 assimilated at the same rate as the predominantly European immigrants who came to the United States from 1895 to 1905.

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“Immigrant groups most often accused of a lack of assimilation actually [assimilated] most rapidly,” they write in a working paper circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “In the past, Portuguese and Russians were among the fastest to assimilate, and today Mexican immigrants have the fastest rate of name assimilation.”

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In a working paper written with Harvard PhD candidate Shom Mazumder and Harvard Business School’s Marco Tabellini, Fouka found that the arrival of black Americans during the Great Migration accelerated the assimilation of Europeans in Northern cities by providing a newer, more readily identified group of outsiders. In a separate working paper, Mazumder showed that serving in the U.S. military in World War I made Italians and Eastern Europeans more likely to assimilate.

Fouka and Stanford’s Aala Abdelgadir also found that France’s 2004 law that effectively banned headscarves in public schools produced another set of unintended consequences: increasing the likelihood that Muslim women would drop out of high school and the workforce.

Across countries and centuries, one thing is constant: Even if cultural bans achieve their immediate goals, they are likely to backfire. Germans in Ohio and Indiana may have learned English, but they did not volunteer for military service or integrate into society. Muslim women in France may discard their headscarves, but in the long run they may assimilate less and stay away from school and the workforce.