Learn to Speak, Read, and Write the Language of Your Children

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Learn to Speak, Read, and Write the Language of Your Children


By: Anonymous artist, Works Progress Administration

Date: 1936–1941

Source: Anonymous. Learn to Speak, Read, and Write the Language of Your Children. New York City Federal Art Project/Works Progress Administration, 1936–1941.

About the Author: The Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired thousands of artists and designers to work in government-sponsored jobs as part of a massive relief package designed by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to help the economy recover from the Great Depression.


Jewish immigration to the United States began with a small flow in the 1820s; there were approximately 3,000 Jewish persons in the United States at that time. By 1860, the population had increased to 150,000 Jews, largely through immigration. The emigration of Gaelic and English-speaking Irish migrants was far greater in the 1840s and 1850s; between 1846 and 1855, nearly two million Irish emigrated to the United States, largely pushed by the potato blight that ruined the primary food for the poor and rural farmers. Faced with the choice between starvation and immigration, two million chose to leave. When Jewish immigrations began to leave eastern Europe in increasing numbers in the early 1880s, the push factor was pogroms, formal and informal campaigns to persecute people of Jewish descent. Triggered in Russia by the mistaken belief that a Jewish person had killed Tsar Alexander II, the new tsar unleashed a sanctioned wave of violence and rights restriction that forced many Jews to face a difficult choice as had the Irish: stay and face horrible conditions, or leave for the unknown?

Most Jews migrating to the United States before the 1880s were Sephardic Jews, descended from ancestors on the Iberian peninsula. The eastern European Jews who migrated in large numbers from the early 1880s to the mid 1920s, however, were Ashkenazi Jews, Yiddish speakers and of German descent. In 1900, active persecution of Romanian Jews began, leading to an influx of immigrants from that country as well. By the end of the great migration of these Jewish immigrants, more than two million people from Russia and eastern Europe filled the United States, bringing a cultural richness, a cheap source of industrial labor, and a host of challenges to society and government.

Whereas Irish immigrants had spoken English in reasonable numbers, the Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, and other eastern Europeans spoke little if any English. Without English language skills, the new immigrants were destined for unskilled positions, largely working in factory settings. Clustered in large cities such as Chicago and New York, the new immigrants quickly became the subject of scorn by native-born Americans and older immigrants, who often resented the problems that such wide-scale immigration brought: overcrowded neighborhoods and schools, increased crime, and job competition.

Social reformers, however, worked to assimilate the immigrants and a new immigration law, the National Origins Quota Law of 1924, changed the procedures for legal U.S. immigration, sharply limiting eastern European immigration and favoring northern Europeans. By the 1930s, as the Great Depression created economic chaos and exacerbated poverty not only in immigrant slums and tenements but on farms, in small towns, and across income and ethnic lines, the children of immigrants slowly improved their language and education through enrollment in public schools. The lack of jobs helped children in some ways; parents permitted children to enroll in school rather than having them work in the factories as low-paid unskilled workers.

In 1936, the Works Progress Administration began subsidizing jobs for artists, using their talent to create public campaigns for education and health. This poster, written in English and Yiddish, appeals to immigrant parents and asks them to take advantage of free English and other courses as part of an American assimilation campaign.



See primary source image.


By and large, Jewish immigrants clustered in the Lower East Side of New York City, where overcrowded conditions led to large families living in two-room apartments, butcher shops, grocery stores, street peddlers, bakeries, and houses of worship in close proximity. Federal and state government worked to help society absorb the immigrants, issuing citizenship materials in Yiddish, Russian, and other languages, while schools swelled with the children of immigrants eager to gain a free education to move up through society.

As this poster notes, parents were part of the later campaigns in the 1930s. Earlier public campaigns in World War I had encouraged immigrants to take free night classes to learn English and to attend night school in other subjects, but the new campaign appealed explicitly to parents in terms of their relationship to their children, noting the difference and the divide between first and second generation immigrants. "Learn to Speak, Read, and Write the Language of Your Children" was not just a campaign, but an appeal to fears that the children of immigrants were separating from their parents, assimilating into American society in a way that left parents behind. Government-sponsored English classes, the campaign implies, could help parents catch up.

That such a poster was created in the late 1930s by a government-funded Works Progress Administration project speaks to the ongoing need to help immigrants to mesh with American society. The stress to speak English also set the tone for future waves of immigration: In 2006, the United States Congress considered a bill making English the official language of the United States, as bilingual programs in education—largely aimed at Spanish-speaking children—have provoked debates about the role of language integration and immigration in modern times.



Friedman-Kasaba, Kathie. Memories of Migration: Gender, Ethnicity, and Work in the Lives of Jewish and Italian Women in New York, 1870–1924. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Hindus, Milton. The Jewish East Side: 1881–1924. New Brunswick, N.J., and London: Transaction Publishers, 1996.

Smith, Jason Scott. Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933–1956. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Watkins, T.H. The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2000.


Marshall, Edward. "Good Metal in Our Melting Pot, Says Miss Wald." The New York Times, November 16, 1913.

Web sites

National Archives and Records Administration. "A New Deal for the Arts." 〈http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/new_deal_for_the_arts/index.html〉 (accessed July 3, 2006).

United States Department of Labor. "Compensation from before World War I through the Great Depression." 2001 〈http://www.bls.gov/opub/cwc/cm20030124ar03p1.htm〉 (accessed July 3, 2006).

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