The Complex Role of Language in Cultural Assimilation

Immigration plays a huge role in shaping what any country looks like. Immigrants face the distinct challenges that come with living between two cultures. They must face the question: how much should you give up to fit into your adopted country, and how much should you strive to keep the traditions and culture of your original country alive?

Cultural assimilation has its benefits. Those who adopt the trends of the dominant culture – from clothing and hairstyles to entertainment choices and food options – find it easier to move up the economic ladder. However, the idea that one must overcome the identity of his or her birth culture in order to succeed in an adopted country is a conflicting one, and one that is starting to change over time (see examples here and here).

One of the biggest symbols of cultural assimilation is language. A Pew research survey designated it as the main indicator for tracking the assimilation of Latinos in the United States, and found evidence that the more one assimilates linguistically, the more opinions and cultural tendencies start to align with those of the adopted culture.

The Dark History of Assimilation

Historically, cultures that conquered or colonized others have usually felt that their way of doing things was superior to that of the conquered. From ancient empires forcing their language onto the countries they subsumed (which helped shape the English language that has long played a key role in many assimilation discussions) to missionaries bringing the message of their religion to the uninitiated, assimilation has often been forced.

While often viewed by those in power as an unambiguously good thing, the imposition of a new culture, religion, and language was often perceived as destructive and tragic by those on the receiving end.

In the late 19th century, the United States government instituted policies that amounted to forced assimilation on the Native Americans. They banned certain tribal customs, renamed children and provided them with new clothes. Perhaps most significantly, they required all educational instruction to be in English. Those who resisted were jailed.

The results were long lasting. 154 Native American languages still remain today, about half of the number that existed in 1492 when European influence first made its way to the Americas. Seven of those are spoken by only one person, and therefore likely to be lost in the near future. Many Native Americans only speak English, and see little need to bother with the old languages and customs.

The Complicated Role of Language

Is the adoption of a new language an early symptom of cultural assimilation, or the force that causes many of the cultural changes that come later? It’s hard to say. Although, as the Pew survey above demonstrates, language does seem clearly linked with other cultural changes.

Linguists have found many ways in which that link is complicated. A study conducted in Germanyfound a relationship between how successful linguistic assimilation is, and how different the original and new languages are in sound. In other words, immigrants who come from countries where the language has similar words and sounds to the one spoken in their new country have a shortcut to assimilation versus those from countries where the language has a greater difference.

recent analysis from Harvard suggests that we tend to over conflate the tendency of new language acquisition to mean the loss of the old language and its cultural influence. With many second-generation Latino immigrants in the United States maintaining a bilingual status, it may be that more people are finding a value in keeping a strong hold on both cultures at once.

Complicating the issue even further, linguistic anthropologists have delved into studies of speech communities that demonstrate how different groups within the native speaking populace use the same language. Some groups intentionally use language as a way to differentiate themselves from the dominant culture. In the United States, an example is the dialect used by many in the African American community. While derided by many outside of the speech community, the language has been embraced by artists who see it as a form of resistance to an oppressive culture. If immigrants are pressured to learn English to fit in, then some African Americans express a desire to not fit in through a difference in dialect

If successful assimilation is seen as aligning your identity to the priorities of the power structure, then some groups have found ways to voice their resistance through the way they use language. Whether it’s Native Americans struggling to keep their languages alive, immigrants insisting on keeping their own language while learning a new one, or African Americans developing a dialect that sets them apart from the dominant culture that long oppressed them, language is used as a way to claim a distinct identity from the one urged by society.