What is Assimilation, Anyway?

I often meet people, my age or older, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. and intentionally avoided teaching their offspring their native language, believing that it would both inhibit their child’s ability to learn English and interfere with their assimilation into American culture. Every one of these now grown “children” expresses regret that they didn’t learn their family’s native tongue.

How times have changed. We now understand that, especially for young children, learning two or more languages is not only possible, but developmentally advantageous. Immigration laws have changed. Our world, too, is smaller. Once upon a time, people boarded a ship knowing they would never see their home country again. They were forced to cut all ties and make a home in the place they landed. Now, we are a Facebook or FaceTime exchange away; we can hop on a plane and be almost anywhere in the world in less than 24 hours, and we can easily find others like us wherever we are: just Google a meet-up group for whatever suits you.

We don’t have a standard definition for what “First” or “Second-generation American” means. Is the first generation the one that did the immigrating? Or the first generation born in the U.S.? As for the term “assimilation,” multiple studies aim to determine how immigrants are assimilating but struggle over how to define what assimilation actually means. Do we measure it by learning English (or the native language of whatever country is being examined)? By civic participation – becoming a citizen, becoming involved in some way? By cultural participation? Did your kids dress up for Halloween? Did you stuff yourself with turkey and mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving, then cheer on your football team while indulging in pumpkin pie smothered in whip cream from a can? Some studies look at economic achievement: jobs, home ownership. Others attempt to examine patriotism. Even more difficult to define: do immigrants feel American? And what does that mean, when even the idea of the “typical” American can vary so much, depending upon what region of the U.S. we are considering? What exactly is the essence of Americanism? Or being French?

Most bicultural or non-American families I know raising children today diligently work to make sure their children know their native cultures and native languages. They fear their children will grow up unable to communicate with family back home, or unfamiliar with what to our friends is so familiar. They embrace many of the traditions and culture of their chosen American home, yet they actively retain their own cultures as well. For us, in our French-American home, the blend is mostly easy. We both already celebrated Easter and Christmas. For my husband, Halloween and Thanksgiving are fun new holidays (though no self-respecting Frenchman would ever stuff himself silly. As for American football… he’s making valiant efforts at appreciating the sport). I had no issue with long meals full of visiting and drinking wine more often. We were both happy to have an extra holiday in July for fireworks and barbeques. Sometimes I think we should move to France just so we can enjoy May, where public holidays mean a month of, well, joie de vivre, and August, where the whole country goes South for vacation.

The challenge for most of us remains teaching our children the second, non-English language. In San Diego, multicultural families surrounded us. One time at the playground, I counted seven different languages being spoken. Seven. We were the norm there – multilingual, multicultural. Here, in Colorado, I rarely hear a foreign language. And for the first time, I feel self-conscious when I speak to my kids in French. People stop and stare. I assume it is because it is so, well, foreign here.

We have no doubt our kids will learn English. With our American family, school, me, and peers, they’ll have plenty of exposure. Unlike many of the families from generations past, we desperately want our kids to speak French and to know their French heritage. We hope they are proud of their unique cultural make up. We hope they can feel at home, that they will have a sense of belonging, in the U.S. and in France. It’s the changing face of our world – a multilingual, multicultural, small world. Where we embrace rather than disconnect from our heritage, where we are proud to speak another language, where diversity is a beautiful, colorful thing.


82 thoughts on “What is Assimilation, Anyway?

  1. As the son of a Greek immigrant and boy who grew up in a home where none but a few phrases of Greek were spoken, I’ll add my electronic voice to the chorus of regrets you’ve heard. It was an unusual situation too, because, in my region, most of the Greek immigrants (and there are many here) did speak Greek in their homes. In fact, a number of the parents of Greek-Americans my age never gained serious facility with English–but their kids did, right alongside Greek. Virtually all of those homes were of both parents being Greek, though. My father was an American. Also unusual, at least for the time.

    Good on you for giving your children both languages from their parents.

      • Yes, and I take the responsibility now for the shortcomings of my Greek as an adult. There is no lack of Greeks for me to speak with, and I have many books. I’m Greek Orthodox, so I can find Greek in varying degrees in different parishes too. It is indeed a fascinating language, and it probably comes easier since it was at least often on the periphery in my youth. There’s some familiarity to the language, even though I could hardly speak a lick of it as a boy.

  2. I assume you’ve been to Quebec already…..

    It does rely on the parents speaking mother tongue often at home. Maybe throw in French cooking often….


  3. What a wonderful post! I learned Portuguese, married a Brazilian and intend very much (if we’re allowed the opportunity) that our children will be bi if not trilingual. Language is a living, breathing thing which will allow them access to identity forming cultural/social mores and relationships. Access that, I hope, will mold them…for the better.

    Continue to speak French with your children.

    It’s a wonderful thing!

    • Thank you for reading!

      I’m a huge believer in making sure children in bicultural/bilingual households are given the gift of both languages and both cultures. Good for you, for learning Portuguese! It’s a beautiful language. Trilingual – even better! Bon Courage!

  4. My father is one of those children of immigrants that did not retain the language.

    In my community there is a high population of immigrants of either German/Russian or Philipino origin. I’ve enjoyed learning their culture, particularly the Philipino culture because they are a warm and generous culture.

    As is human tendency, though, they mainly associate with others of their culture. Could assimilation also take into account when that tendency tapers off? Or would that be to lose their identity?

    Then again, I’m not sure humans ever “lose” that tendency.

  5. A friend of mine is French Canadian.. In order for her parents to assure she learnt French fluently, her mum will only speak to her in French, so regardless of whether my friend says something in English, her mum will always reply in French. She is definitely fluent in both languages 🙂 and now that she is older, she decides to just speak French to her mum. She said it means she doesn’t have to “switch brains” when she’s speaking 🙂

  6. I would probably be one of those people that stops and stares if I heard someone speaking a language other than English to their children. I certainly would not be intending discomfort on your part! It is more that I enjoy listening to languages other than English and have an instinct to try and understand even if I have no previous learning experience. I hope that you do not perceive all of the notice as negative 🙂

    This post reminds me of a comment my mother made the other day. We both work in a shopping mall, and stores within the mall often see increased patronage from mall employees simply because of the convenience. One of those shops, a nail salon, is a place my mother frequents although I myself do not. She remarked that the ladies employed there, who typically speak fluent Vietnamese and broken English, seemed to be chattering animatedly about the college American football being shown on the shop’s televisions (my mother discerning this from the few English words spoken like “Big 10”, “Ohio State”, and so on). It was clear she was surprised by this, surprised by them being as interested in college American football as “normal Americans” (I cringed a little bit at what I thought was a rather rude choice of words on her part). The way she said it came across as patronizing to me, like ‘Oh look, how cute they are trying to be American’, because even though I too would have been surprised to be present in the same scenario I would not have seen these ladies as ‘trying to be American’.

    • Good point – I can see by the expressions some people wear that the staring is coming from interest rather than judgement.

      Sounds like the Vietnamese women were assimilating into American football culture nicely 🙂

      Thank you for reading!

  7. For me, assimilation was the changing of the pronunciation of my last name, and no learning the pre-assimilation language. I often go back to the correct pronunciation. But Ima never gonna learn the language 😢

  8. On one side of my family I am 5th generation Lebanese and the other side I am 4th generation Polish, as well as many different ethnicities in between. The great thing about being an American is that you can be your own idea of what it means to be an American. You don’t have to give up your own customs, your don’t have to eat American food, and we don’t have a national language so you can speak whatever language you want. (Also, many states are making it a requirement that children learn another language to graduate high school and it looks good on college applications so good for you making your kids keep up with the French!)

    At my house at Thanksgiving we have all the normal Thanksgiving food as well as grapeleaves and gwampkies. I do extensive amount of research of Maronite culture and other places my ancestors came from. Being from the new country doesn’t mean I forget about the old.

    America is such a strange place anyways because we are not tied together by own ethnic backgrounds but rather than our ideals of freedom and follow the ideals of the founding fathers.

  9. It’s interesting how perspectives change over generations. Part of my family goes back to Romania (coming to the US through Russia and then England). My grandmother’s generation (and prior) had no interest in ever going back to Romania–“our family left for a reason,” she would often say. My generation, however, is interested in seeing where this branch of the family originated and learning what we can. I haven’t made it back yet, but it’s on the list.

  10. Since I come from a multi-lingual country (India), I faced an odd issue – I didn’t learn my mother-tongue very well (I can understand it pretty well, but I cannot speak the language), but I did learn 2 other Indian languages, along with English.
    And this happened in India!
    My parents are satisfied with the fact that I did learn an “Indian” language, even if it isn’t my mother tongue.
    It feels strange when I can understand what my aunts and uncles are telling me, but I cannot respond in kind. Thankfully, they are understanding, and help me with the grammar and vocabulary whenever I’m wrong. 🙂

  11. While we spoke English to our American father and among ourselves, my siblings and I had no choice but to speak German with our mother at home, as it took her many years to learn English. The ability to speak German–which I always took for granted–came in pretty handy when I went to live in Germany some years later.

    While living in Europe, where I was born, I found it was not uncommon to encounter people there who spoke 3, 4, 5 different languages, and who spoke them so fluently, that I often had to ask them from where they originally hailed.

    Unfortunately, as I no longer find much opportunity so speak German, I find myself constantly searching for the right words, when I do encounter someone these days with whom to speak what was my original tongue.


    • How great that you had the opportunity to learn German and English as a child. It’s true that Europeans are much more likely to be multilingual. In France, the first language learned (aside from the French mother tongue) is termed the “first” language, while as an American, English is our first, French (or whatever one chooses to study) is the second, etc. I’ve always found this interesting.

  12. Hi! I’m Australian, not American, but I think I can relate. I truly think that there is no such thing as a typical Australian or American because of the immigrants and the changing demographics. This post was beautifully written. I’m learning French at the moment and it is an exquisite language. Just felt like saying that. 🙂

  13. I suppose Quebecois francais is not proper “French”. I assume you’ve been to Quebec? There are also pockets of French-Canadian communities in Alberta and in Nova Scotia (Acadians who went south to …New Orleans area..2 centuries ago.).

    • Unfortunately, no, I’ve never been to Quebec. It’s on the list. In some ways, the French spoken there is more pure than the French in France, where so many English words have soiled the language 🙂 (le week-end, e-mail, etc)

  14. Enjoyed reading this! I understand how you feel being self conscious speaking French like that.
    I communicate with my girlfriend in Mandarin. When we’re in China it’s just the status quo for me to be stared at, so at I don’t really mind, but when I went back to the UK with her last Christmas the staring really made me uncomfortable. I think it was something about feeling like an odd one out in my own culture.
    Still though, if we ever have kids, no matter where we are, they will be raised bilingual.

  15. I’m engaged to an Asian guy and constantly rue is lack of desire to impart his language to me. Although I am USA born and raised, I’ve always envied my friends who had not only another language but another culture to experience. Your kids are very very lucky.

    • Thanks for reading!

      As for language learning, I think it’s hard for someone to teach it to another person as language is such a complicated beast. My husband can help me (sometimes) when I ask a specific question, but I definitely have needed trained professional teachers in order to truly learn the language. Maybe you can find a tutor or a class in the target language? Then, after you make some progress, your fiance might be able to help you along by speaking with you? It worked for us 🙂

  16. There is no such thing as a typical American as America is becoming more and more multicultural. In the end, we are all people with hearts and minds, it doesn’t matter if you are French, American, Korean etc . Loved this post. I love the French language by the way. It is exquisite. I learnt it when I was younger at school. You should teach your kids. I wish my parents could speak French, I would loved to have grown up with the language.

  17. I think assimilation has a lot to do with accepting the new country. I know that many immigrants in Norway want Norway to be ruled by the Shariah law.
    I mean, come on. You move to another country with different viewpoints – don’t expect them to change for you.

    • It definitely breeds resentment. I find myself, on a more subtle level, comparing Colorado – my new home – to California and I have to stop myself from saying, “well in California we …” I suppose it is human nature to try to hold on to what we know best and can relate to, yet it certainly expands our world if we can look at new places with fresh eyes and are able to accept and appreciate those new places for what they are.

  18. The house next to ours is a rental and a few years ago we had a Polish mother, Indian father and one beautiful girl called Zuzu. Her parents spoke their native tongue(s) to her as well as english, their common language. Zuzu was only about 3 and hardly spoke a word but would listen intently to every that was said to her. We often took her over the garden fence to play on the trampoline and I loved how she cocked her head to listen when we spoke. I was so disappointed when they left, I was fascinated with her progress and thought her lucky to have such a great opportunity to learn different languages. I’m from Ireland and despite learning Irish in school for 13 years I can hardly speak a word of it.

    • That’s one lucky little girl! It’s amazing to watch language develop in youngsters, whether the mother tongue or a second language.

      My husband says the same thing about his seven years of German in school – none of it seemed to stick. Such a bummer.

      Thank you for reading!

  19. I am an economic refugee from the US living in another country trying to assimilate. Learning a language at 63 is difficult. But assimilating to me means understanding how the people as a culture currently thinks and seeing where they came from. They did not rewrite their history books. They had problems they still haven´t figured out.
    Funny but I am here and they want to go to the US.

  20. Neither of my parents retained the languages of their parents (Italian). I know a few phrases, mostly thing you call people; I was called a “chiacchierone” a lot as a little kid, and learned quickly what it meant. 🙂 And I knew that when someone was called a “cafone,” it was not nice and probably involved shoveling in your food before you could taste it.

    A lot of that was World War II, though — speaking Italian in public could and in some cases did get you in trouble. 😦 I do retain my sense of italianita though — hard not to when a lot of my childhood involved being constantly reminded of it bu those who weren’t. I knew what “chiacchierone” meant, but was mystified the first time I heard “dago” and “wop.”

  21. I think there is room for balance–it seems many people tend to go one way or the other. Either they refuse to learn the language or they refuse to speak their own to their kids. Why not both?

    • I meet many people who learn the language of the country they are in, while continuing to speak their native tongue with their kids. I also have met adults who struggle to learn the language of their adopted country. I sympathize – learning a language is no easy feat, though it definitely helps with feeling more at ease in a new home!

  22. Being the 1st generation in England, my parents from India, I really regret that I haven’t done more to learn my mother tongue because I want to teach my children one day, carry on our culture. And the worst part is that they speak to me in Gujarati and so do many of the elders in my community but I don’t understand and I hate it.

  23. Pingback: What is Assimilation, Anyway? | aweadewumie's Blog

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  25. Even though your blog relates to assimilation as an American, i couldn’t resist sharing my thoughts on this issue even though I am not an immigrant, not by a long shot. I am an Indian, residing in my own country; yet i understand your dilemma and your sentiments perfectly. Almost the whole world has adopted and adapted English language as its own. Its more of a necessity these days. Most of us watch American shows, appreciate and understand American food and culture (even when most of us have never been to nor do ave any connection to directly understand America!!). The world has indeed grown smaller. And still we fail to understand, appreciate and disseminate our own language, the one we grew up with.

    In this country we have dialects that change every 5 kilometer. Though i know Hindi and we communicate at home in the same language but sometimes i do miss learning and speaking the language of the village that i belong to.

    This i guess, is also a form of assimilation.

  26. I spoke English with my parents growing up, not my mother tongue. Now as an adult, I am doing everything I can to learn my native language! In Canada, especially in Toronto it is common to hear people speaking and socializing in their native language. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  27. As a French-American who’s lived in both countries (and two others – my dad was military so we moved a lot), I can tell you that growing up bilingual has come in incredibly handy. Keep on speaking both languages to your kids; they’ll thank you for it later. 🙂

    As far as assimilation goes, I think you know you’ve reached that point when you find yourself talking and acting just like your neighbors. We lived in Belgium for 3 years at one point and by the time we left my sisters and I had picked up the accent, colloquialisms, etc. I occasionally actually forgot I wasn’t actually Belgian – and then I’d catch myself thinking in English and go, “Oh wait, right…” 😛

  28. I completely agree! We should embrace diversity in all of its beauty. 🙂 Diversity is amazing and can only enrich our lives!

  29. This is so great! I’m in the process of writing a book about the international experience the other way around: I’m American, married to a Dutch man, have been living in the Netherlands for 15 years now and we’ve got 2 bilingual teenaged kids. I, too, have a love-hate relationship with international life. Basically, it is such an added blessing with so many opportunities (two complete worlds) that it gets very complicated and sometimes confusing. My focus for the book is what we think about “home” and what that actually is and means to us…and how that changes. Would love to hear people’s stories! Looking forward to reading more of your blog and checking out some of the others you so kindly provided links to!
    Cheers from the other side of the water,

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