ECTACO Info: Immigration and Language

By Bettina Ribes-Gil
Originally published in
Multilingual Living Magazine

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...

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