Immigration and Language

by expert · 5 comments

By Bettina Ribes-Gil
Originally published in Multilingual Living Magazine
Photo credit: hatman12

An immigrant is a person living in a country that is not their own, often separated from the core family and in a culture with which they are not familiar. They include diplomats, officials working for international organizations, multinational corporations and international banks, religious groups, aid workers, etc., who probably do not realize that they are immigrants in the same way as asylum seekers, economic migrants escaping poverty in search of a better life or refugees fleeing from civil strife. Nevertheless, all are thrown nolens volens into a different culture, social class, local traditions, language and discourse strategies, etc.

There are, of course, translation and interpretation services available to recently arrived minority ethnic groups in most host countries.  However, it is more important to provide incentives for language learning for immigrants to accelerate their integration and thus decrease the sense of insecurity and alienation often felt initially, apart from the obvious benefits of bi-multilingualism.

The language barrier exacerbates intercultural misunderstandings. Those seeking work are at a disadvantage due to subjective factors such as employers fearing migrants are unable to learn a trade because of language deficiencies.

Language issues are highly political.  Some governments are quick to embrace emigration as a panacea for unemployment and underemployment in their own countries and governments in the receiving countries propagate pessimistic prognosis regarding integration.

Certain working environments can interfere with migrants’ cross-cultural adaptation. In workplaces where the majority of employees are from the same linguistic background, which is other than the host language, there is the danger of apathy setting in and it is therefore essential to encourage immigrants to take advantage of whatever language tuition is available not only to facilitate integration but to aspire to self- improvement.

The general tendency is to acknowledge that most groups are here to stay and government policies have to be oriented towards funding the teaching of the language of the country of adoption. The British Advisory Board on Naturalisation and Integration stated that some of the pressure for English language classes could be alleviated by employers taking responsibility for the language needs of migrant workers.

As for their children, it is estimated that a high percentage speak languages at home other than that of their country of adoption which increases the burden on schools to provide an adequate standard of linguistic education. In Britain recent figures showed that nearly 15% of children in State schools come from non-English-speaking homes and within inner London this rises to nearly 54% of all pupils.

The goal is for most immigrants to become “anonymous.” For example, many Turks in Germany have, by the way of upward mobility, lost their “visibility” as poor workers to become “invisible” – thus not immediately recognized as foreigners –  but  as professionals (doctors, engineers, etc.).  Most integration factors reinforce each other: a better job is associated with more advanced language skills, this followed by a higher salary enabling the immigrant to move to live outside the original migrant sphere, thus entering into wider social contact with the host population.

This visible-invisible situation can be compared to the attitude in the United States where the media often concentrates on crimes committed by ethnic minorities instead of acknowledging the substantial number of middle/upper class immigrants, often subsequently university educated, who are now integrated into the North American society at a high level.

A pluralistic approach is necessary for minorities to feel at home in their new country. Apart from the responsibility of governments and education authorities, the onus also lies with the individual migrant families.  Of course they should not lose sight of their own cultural identity and cross-cultural exchanges should be promoted to foster mutual understanding between immigrants and the host population.  This is where linguistic knowledge is paramount.

At the same time, parents from strict socio-cultural backgrounds must be ready to adapt to their new situation and not influence their children who, through the host country education system, will learn the language quicker and wish to integrate into the local society.   The lack of family support risks alienating the children in two ways: either (1) from the core family itself, or if feeling marginalised, they (2) can easily be exposed to radical influences prejudicial to their adopted country.  This also applies to children born in the new country and who, in spite of following the country’s education system,  are hindered by the older generations’ conservative attitude.

In conclusion, the anthropological meaning of “cultures” refers to the different ways of living, thinking and creating and immigration can be the backbone to enable furthering the dialogue between peoples of our global village. Immigrants have the opportunity to forge a new identity in which language is one of the cornerstones of interpenetration of different cultures through racial mingling and thus contributing to a more peaceful world.

Fusion is effected when a new identity has been created, or as the French phrase it: “S’il n’a pas d’arrachement, il n’y a pas l’attachement!”

Bettina Ribes Gil is a retired international official and a freelance
TEFLA certified teacher with experience in Switzerland and Spain.
She is now concentrating on writing more than teaching.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mercè Solé November 16, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I’ve found interesting thoughts and comments. However I want to tell that it’s possible (and better) for children to grow up bilingual, more than one language: familiar language and also the language of school, language of country of arrival. Children can be educated in more than one language and this does not hinder their learning.
Professor François Grosjean of the Neuchtel University ( or rofessorà Antonella Sorace of Edimbourgh University ( supports this opinion.


2 Jennifer December 2, 2011 at 12:14 am

This is thought provoking.

There is one myth I would like to bust.

Yes, it is true that in general higher educated immigrants can express more in the local language than less educated immigrants. However, there are situations, for instance in US, where in particular professions due to lack of interact with customers/patients/clients AND a high concentration of immigrants from a particular country- they are actually talking among themselves in their local language. This hinders a deeper more interactive understanding of English. I have see this in many offices in USA.


3 Mercè Solé December 4, 2011 at 10:26 am

Thanks for your answer.
In my opinion the best model is one that allows immigrant students learn the language (or languages) of the country of arrival and, at the same time, help students to love and appreciate the family language and in promoting knowledge.
Bilingualism is a source of opportunities for citizens of a global world.


4 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Thank you both for these thoughtful responses! The role of immigrant is such a varied one – those who arrive with a fabulous job and community awaiting them vs those who arrive feeling lost, confused and alone. Of course, ideally, each immigrant would be given enough attention to ensure that he/she is provided the resources that he/she needs in the new homeland – easier said than done!


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