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Most European immigrants came from places where more than one language was spoken; most people, even average people, knew more than one. This was not unusual even in the US in the 18th and 19th Century. A German newspaper published in the US had the largest circulation in America. The Irish immigrants who arrived from the 1840s spoke English as a second language. My grandfather from Shaky in Lithuania certainly spoke Lithuanian as well as Yiddish. Since his wife only knew Russian and English, I assume he also knew one or both. Typical American monolingualism is the exception in human societies, not the norm. Of course, no one official spoke 40 languages, although I personally know a polyglot who claims that many.
From: "Stephen Weinstein via groups.jewishgen.org"
Sent: Jun 28, 2020 7:44 PM
Subject: Re: [JewishGen.org] "His name was changed at Ellis Island" #general #usa
On Fri, Jun 26, 2020 at 08:35 AM, <YaleZuss@...> wrote:
Do you know anyone who can speak 40 languages? Does any of them work for the amount paid the immigration inspectors?
I think the "40 languages" meant that the inspectors collectively spoke a total of 40, including English and 39 others, meaning that there were 40 languages that were each spoken by at least one inspector. This could simply mean that 39 of the inspectors were immigrants from 39 different countries, and those 39 each spoke two languages, English and the language of their home country. It does not mean that any one inspector spoke all 40 languages.
I know someone who can speak English and one other language. And I think that out of several million immigrants, there were at least 39 immigrants who spoke English and the language of their home country, but had no other marketable job skills, and would work for whatever immigration inspectors were paid.