Linguistic Assimilation

I believe I’ve just had the most frustrating conversation I’ve ever had, around the issue of immigration and languages. And I don’t even know how it happened. It just literally blind-sided me.

What Is Linguistic Assimilation?

In Canada, English and French are considered our official languages. Anyone who works for the government is required to speak both, and many (if not all) government documents are written in both languages as well. Generally speaking, corporations offer services in writing and over the phone in both languages. This is all a result, of course, of Canada’s colonial government. Other results of our colonial government, relating specifically to the issue of what linguistic assimilation is, include the treatment of Aboriginal children in residential schools. While being culturally indoctrinated and refused the right to participate in their traditional spirituality in these institutions, children were also systematically deprived of the right to speak their first languages, and often severely punished when caught doing so. This is linguistic assimilation in its most violent format — enforcing a coerced sameness between different groups of people who started out speaking different languages. Before this colonization of language, people of each group were free to learn the language of the other. But once this process began, some Aboriginal languages became either permanently erased or very nearly extinct, while English and French were forced upon the same populations. And many of those children lost the ability to communicate in their (original) first language, resulting in entire generations who exclusively communicate (unknowingly) in English (as a second language — I know this was me until I attended college, and I’m even non-Native).

Immigration Into Canada

There exist many shades of non-citizenship in this country, between full citizenship and straight off the boat/plane. Yet let us not forget that immigration as it presently is constructed in this society, is a colonial institution designed to assimilate everyone into a narrow definition of whiteness. The Indian Act is a similarly conceived institution of the colonial government, with the express purpose of assimilating First Nations (residential schools being yet another measure of the same intentions). But I digress.

Essentially, to board a plane or boat and enter the country without a work visa or student visa (such as on a trip-for-personal-enjoyment), and simply decide to stay here, is a form of illegal immigration. One has to complete applications, push paper around, pay (often enormous) fees, and disclose a great deal of personal information to the government, in order to be considered for legal immigration and associated temporary resident status (however, many basic rights citizens take for granted every day, such as the right to vote, are not granted to temporary residents). A few years later, one becomes eligible to apply for permanent resident status (the same lack of rights applies to permanent residents, including the risk of deportation). And a few years after that, one becomes eligible to complete the optional citizenship process to become a Canadian citizen (and legally a subject of the colonial government). This is to say nothing at all of the many people who arrive in Canada, by legal means, with work visas, student visas, or refugee status. The point being that there are many ways of being in Canada from another country, both legally and illegally, without surrendering citizenship of one’s home country, and building a life for oneself on this land.

I personally tend to be of the belief that none of those persons, individually or collectively, should be subject to wage-slavery, exploitation, blackmail, cultural assimilation, or even linguistic assimilation, in order to be here. And yet, the colonial government in its infinite wisdom, designed a program explicitly targeting women from the Philippines, to fulfill jobs no Canadian citizen will take: the live-in caregiver program. Filipino women exchange their labour under conditions of wage-slavery and blatant exploitation as live-in caregivers for elderly and/or disabled Canadians — within inappropriately rigid requirements and punitively tight deadlines that are violations of labour laws for Canadian citizens — for citizenship in this country and the hope of a brighter future for their families in their home country (and the next generation in ours). Failure to fulfill those inappropriately rigid requirements can result in losing a much-needed job contract that she requires to meet the deadlines, and a failure to acquire a second contract in time can result in her deportation.

The live-in caregiver program is just one example of why immigration into Canada (when ending in full citizenship) is not nearly as cut and dry as some would prefer to believe. I have little faith in the colonial government, that this is the only example I could find if I looked hard enough. Thus, it is my firm belief that to resist linguistic assimilation by refusing to learn either or both of the two official languages, and thus engaging exclusively with communities that share a common culture, language, and/or experience, should be considered as basic a right as it is to learn one or both official languages; and that to willfully assimilate only to the degree one chooses to do so, should not be looked down upon by Settler Canadians. If there is ever a powerful way for a non-citizen Settler living in Canada, to subvert the colonial government and its institutions of cultural and linguistic assimilation (an option that is arguably critical to democracy), I cannot think of one with more social power than refusing to learn one or both of the official languages, and/or refusing to apply for (optional) citizenship. The preservation of First Nations languages is equally critical to the preservation of First Nations cultures under the same (or parallel) oppressive government institutions.

Privileged Assumptions And Other Absurdities

Now that I’ve laid out a fairly significant number of  historical and contemporary issues (though certainly not all of them, and not an intensive treatment) that factor into virtually any conversation where language meets immigrants to Canada, I’m going to address the privileged assumptions and other absurdities that spontaneously evolve out of these conversations. At the cost of my head filling with fucks.

The very first privileged assumption is that, because one (often white) person claims that they would learn the language and culture of their destination country if they emigrated from Canada, then it follows that people who immigrate here should learn the (official) language(s) and culture of ours. There are two immediate problems with this, however; the first of which is that even though people like myself were born here, we didn’t have to learn the language(s) and culture(s) of the people who truly define this country: First Nations. Rather, we learned the official languages of a colonial government and the culture that is defined, regulated, and reinforced by it (all while trying to contain, deconstruct, and wipe out all First Nations cultures). And the second problem with this privileged assumption is that there would be no way to communicate with a majority of people in that destination country, without first learning the language that is spoken by the majority. But this is simply not often true. One of the well-known and widespread effects of colonialism (especially by the British and the United States), out-sourced labour, and the push for global capitalism, is an enormous and increasing population, in a number of countries worldwide, who are bilingual — capable of speaking English in addition to the language of the dominant culture. One can take a trip nearly anywhere in the world, and even if he/she can only speak English, still get by without a translator or working knowledge of local languages and dialects.

A second privileged assumption often emerges as well. That is, the assumption that because a Canadian-born Settler such as myself (but who, unlike myself, simply hasn’t thought about the immigration process and all that colonialism has cost Settlers and Indigenous peoples) is adequately comfortable living as a Settler on this land, then we can magically attribute this as the end-goal of the immigrant generation before us. That they came here with the explicit intent of arriving here and assimilating into a culture they knew next to nothing about. But there’s a problem with this assumption too. It is rooted in the belief that severing one’s connections to his/her own heritage is the same as blindly embracing a whole new identity. The former is an act of erasure, while the latter is an act of assimilation. One can be assimilated without first erasing his/her heritage (as in the residential schools), and another can erase his/her heritage without assimilating (as is often the case in immigration). That my family happened to participate in both processes does not mean that everyone who immigrates to this country after my family did ought to make the same decisions for themselves and their children (or that anyone else should have to, for that matter). Those decisions ultimately cost me my entire (very broken) family, and the grief is often too much to bear.

Finally, the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard happened in the conversation that inspired this writing. It is perhaps because of the sheer magnitude of just how ridiculous the claim I am about to share is, that I finally felt the push to write about this subject. That is, that when someone asks an English-speaker if they know a different language, that what they expect of the English-speaker is that they know every language on the face of the planet. It just didn’t seem even remotely reasonable to the other person in this conversation — the person who said this to my face — that perhaps they are merely enquiring into the possibility of a shared language while a bilingual family member or translator who would usually speak for them in such a situation is simply not in their company at the time of this interaction. It didn’t seem reasonable to them that the solution to their infrequent and marginal inconvenience is to either move away from a multicultural community or find ways to adapt; rather, it somehow seemed more reasonable to them that all immigrants to this country be forced to linguistically assimilate as a requirement of citizenship. I suppose they feel that because the colonial government effectively achieved this feat against all of the First Nations on whose land we live (and we, as a country, have seen how well that worked out), then we should do it to new immigrants too.

I don’t even. What this is.

22 thoughts on “Linguistic Assimilation

  1. Colonization is rape – and decolonization can choose to go in that direction – or move in another direction completely – and I choose one that is opposite of rape. Decolonization cannot be founded on the same methodology that was used by colonizers – or we’re all in trouble. Please think about the term “settler” in this context. (Settlers stripped Indigenous identity away – now Canadians find themselves having their identity being stripped away by those who wish to name them “settlers” – which is not how they identify. Do two wrongs make a right?)

    other than that – excellent information and perspective.

    • Contrary to the assumptions it seems your comment is rooted in, indigenous peoples are not trying to strip the identities away of the settlers who live on their territories. The colonial government does a fine job of that, and it is in all our best interests (Native and non-Native) to open our eyes and our hearts to that fact, and do the work of understanding where we all come from (i.e., despite the fact that BC’s Premier literally said she spent millions of dollars preserving a colonial settlement because it’s “where Canadians come from”, really, we come from all over the world, and it is up to us to acknowledge that every day — our government tries to tell us otherwise, every day… even in our national anthem).

  2. It’s too bad this blog isn’t getting more hits, as many Canadians are clueless. That said – I identify as a Canadian, not a settler. Unfortunately for me, “colonialism” is the culture I hail from – one that I abhor and fight against. But I was born here, and have identified as a Canadian since I was a child. I don’t believe that throwing away my identity and taking on a new identity as “settler” is what will fix this country. Remaining a Canadian and fighting for a better Canada seems more productive. If a Dididaht person identifies as Dididaht, I do not call them Nuu Chah Nulth, even though they are connected. I don’t call them Canadian either. I believe it’s important for people to have the right to self-identify. (This is something we should all beware of today, considering how many common names are now taught as derogatory – such as Gypsy, which is still widely used – and still accepted by the elders who call themselves Gypsies and not Roma.) I believe the reason the elders continue to identify as Gypsies, is because it was how they were taught to identify – and name-changes are linked to identity crisis.

    It is unfortunate that none of us will ever escape colonialism – we all use colonialist technology for survival, fun and social networking. We also purchase imports that come to us from lands where other indigenous peoples are being exploited. So none of us get a “get out of jail free” card – unless we are living completely off the grid, and are self sufficient, to the point of making our own clothes instead of unknowingly supporting sweat factories etc.

    Where linguistics is concerned – we should all be learning languages. I feel jaded that I grew up in an English speaking family, with a grandfather who didn’t pass his first language on. I am currently learning 2 different languages – one that is easier than the other!! I did a lot of research on ESL when I was finishing my degree, and it was fascinating that the majority of international students spoke multiple languages, including English – were mostly taking business degrees – but so many Canadians would want to deny them the right to come here if English hadn’t been one of their already spoken languages. An individual who speaks 3-5 languages already, WILL pick up English when they get here…

    I’ve read many posts on news articles where individuals talk about minorities as being “stupid” if they don’t speak English…..interesting to consider that those criticisms come from individuals who only speak one language – the person who speaks 3 or 5 languages is bound to be highly intelligent and worldly.

    Anyway – interesting article.

    • I was born here too. Settler isn’t an identity you choose, it’s the relationship you and I both have to the land we call home. It’s not optional. It’s just like saying “white privilege”, only, it’s specific to our relationship between indigenous peoples and the land we all share.

      However, unlike yourself, I am not proud to call myself Canadian. I see that as a civic identity characterized historically and currently by an ongoing cultural genocide perpetrated by the colonial government against indigenous peoples, and that is something I cannot — will not — take pride in. I am a settler here. Recognizing this and accepting it changes my perspective on our national anthem and government.

      You may or may not wish to read up further on what this all means, at the following page about decolonizing:
      http://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/ (especially the “about” page)

      It saddens me that people would judge someone’s intellectual capacities on the basis of whether or not they’ve accepted being linguistically assimilated :o(

  3. BTW – I do know where I come from – (From Europe, and also my Roma roots), but I have no personal connection to their lands. As the family historian, I have traced my ancestors path across the US and into Canada, etc. Unfortunatly, my Roma roots are impossible to trace, for obvious reasons. I grew up in British Columbia, between Vancouver Island and Vancouver – and everytime I go/live away from home, I have tears in my eyes when I land in Vancouver. Home is where the heart is – it would seem this land owns my heart.

  4. Pingback: Linguistic Assimilation « HaifischGeweint | Second Language Attrition | Scoop.it

  5. Canada is far from perfect – but expecting me to re-identify does not change a thing. I “could” change my identity – I AM already far more into this than most are – as you are.

    Question is this: What does one do about those who are ignorant ? It seems obvious to me that you and I are not ignorant – but what about those who are? Should you and I feel shameful, as individuals? Or should we celebrate a certain solidarity? Don’t take me wrong- First Nations don’t like “outsiders” like us “expecting” solidarity – but I happen to know first hand, that many First Nations love people like you and me, who SHOW solidarity with them – those of us white folks, who know things – for whatever reason…….if we know something, we are much more respected, than those who know nothing. I believe it’s important to respect the differences too….it does not matter that I’m white – but it matters that I respect the culture. As a white person, the only way for me to earn respect, is by displaying solidarity. I know you understand this!

    I am very well versed about First Nations culture and history. Believe me – I’ve worked hands-on with their community for over 20 years! I attend potlatches, I move in circles many envy me for…..(as a white woman).

    I know the art-community – I even know things I should “not” know – in fact, I was at a potlatch recently, that caused quite a stir in the community. Many families boycotted the event, because it was seen as “lacking ethics” where protocol was concerned.

    And that protocol had nothing to do with “white” society – and everything to do with “First Nations” protocol…

    yet I am white. I am very well aware of the fact that it is my privilege to witness such political debate, within a community that is not my own. At the same point in time – I understand a few things that most don’t, simply due to the fact that so many people I know, have taken me in.

    and this is fact:

    No society has complete solidarity. Many First Nations/Metis/ Inuit = they may call Canadians “settlers” from an Academic perspective.

    But please don’t kid yourself, about the fact that many First Nations who attend Potlatches, sport the Canadian Flag – I have witnessed this (and have photographs to prove it).

    And that means = there are a lot of First Nations who show solidarity with Canada – despite our wrongful terms.

    What it comes down to, in the end – is the right to self-identify.

    I am not always proud to be a Canadian – yet when I look wide, around the world, and think hard about what is going on in this country – I feel hope. A lot of First Nations (that I know on a personal level) – feel hope.

    We are changing- we need to change. I thank you for your thoughtful words.

    I also hope you recognize the fact that we are still a leading nation – and no matter how wrong we’ve turned in the past – we are heading in a better direction today, than we were even 10 years ago.

    Namaste :)

    • There is not one unifying First Nations culture. Just as there is not one unifying feminism or philosophy (or feminist philosophy), and there are different paradigms within psychology and anthropology and many other fields of study, First Nations peoples and their cultures are diverse.

      I am the first to admit I find it confusing that some First Nations take their traditions and spirituality, and integrate it into Western Christianity (then again, I have a hard time understanding why anyone is Christian). And within bands, disagreements evolve — sometimes out of differences in politics between generations, and sometimes out of differences in perspective.

      I don’t claim to speak for all First Nations — or for any at all, for that matter. I speak for myself, and I learned how to look deeper at myself (to gain understanding of parts of me for which I would otherwise have no answer) from friends of mine who are Aboriginal, and who are passionate about decolonizing, to the point that they are willing to fight to their deaths defending Aboriginal autonomy. I want them to not have to fight to their deaths, but my hopes are often destabilized by this country’s politicians and their frequently racially privileged (or, conversely, blatantly racist) decisions. We still have to learn how to sweep our own floors, before we start barging in on longhouses and tipis, expecting to tell the First Nations how to do it right.

  6. BTW – I am sad that you have such little hope for the term “Canada”

    If you look at the world, and consider her many violations against humanity-

    Canada is still a leader. We may not be perfect yet – but we really ARE the kind of society that is more hell-bent on getting this right, than many other countries in the world that surrounds us.

    For this reason – I hope you can learn to feel pleased about the fact that your ancestors came here, instead of some of the other places your people could have gone.

    We are not perfect – what society is? Do you really think egalitarian society existed here?

    Cause if you believe egalitarians were here at contact, you are mistaken. And that does not excuse Colonialism – but I certainly hope it informs you about human society, and our willingness to kill whatever causes an obstacle in our path –

    Believe me, please – there is archaeological evidence on Vancouver Island – that war was imminent.

    I’ve seen the bones myself.

    And I do not judge – yet understand, – nobody was egalitarian here. War was normal here.

    Complicated too – I really have a lot to say about it!

    (When the white man came – he came with guns and bullets – so it was not fair game.)

    Doesn’t mean the people here didn’t war against each other. Check out Guise Bay, at Cape Scott – if you ever have the chance. It’s scattered with human bones and beads….and that war was over land……

    and that was an indigenous war :(

  7. Just curious – are you aware of the reasons for the arguments between the Nisga’s and the Carrier people ?

    Have you read about those legal arguments, on behalf of the Carrier Nation ?

    I am sure you would want to be informed about that – and you should be.

    This problem no longer exists as a white vs First Nations issue – it has become much deeper than that – and while I truly believe our Gov’t is at fault for disallowing a square peg to fit a round hole – it isn’t lost on me that today, it’s not only non-First Nations who seek a land-grab.

    There is a reason why treaties are impossible to reach in BC – and many First Nations that I know personally, are against them for the simple fact that the treaty-negotiations are splitting families. That doesn’t make me very happy – because our gov’t should work with First Nations to agree on “shared lands” – (and are not at the present time) – but there is also truth in the fact that certain nations are using their war-like history to condescend other nations – instead of playing fair.

    You cannot stereotype any culture, as having complete solidarity within…

    Not all Canadians agree on our political system – and First Nations are just like the rest of us, in that they all have varying opinions.

    In the end – we are merely human beings, with unique opinions and experiences that have shaped our political and spiritual beliefs.

    I work with the First Nations community, and have for many years. I’ve also worked in the Middle East. I am also white…..there are three cultures that have proved to me, that none of us can be pigeon-holed by any belief system or pattern.

    I honor all. I even honor Canadian culture – regardless of the fact that many would like to call me a “settler,” – despite the fact that I was actually born here – and happen to self-identify as a Canadian.

    You have written quite a few posts about self-identifying, due to your ownership over your gender-identification. You should have that right. No person should call you one thing or another – and if an outsider calls you “male” or “female” – how do you feel about that ?

    I call myself Canadian. When someone else calls me a “settler” – I am offended as much as any other, who merely wishes to self-identify.

  8. btw – I completely agree that First Nations are truly diverse. As an atheist, I allow everyone their own right to spirituality. I used to wonder how so many of my FN friends could show solidarity with Christianity – but after years of knowing them – it’s not something I question presently.

    They are aware of their history – and ours. Most of the FN Christians I personally know, were subjected to Res schools – and are angry about what they were put through – but still found love in Jesus. Hey – I may not “get why” – but I have to respect their right to choose.

    Everyone I know, who is FN Christian, blames the gov’t – and the individuals who caused them harm.

    In particular – one elder I am very close to, was protected by a Nun when she was in a Residential school – and she tells me all the time, that Nun was a “true” Christian – and that she understands the difference between her, and the others who were there to cause harm.

    This same woman has told me countless stories about so-called “Medicine people” who have used this label, to cause harm within the sweat-lodge. I find this difficult to deal with – because I so badly want to believe that anyone involved with the sweat-lodge has a pure soul….

    Alas – all spirituality is exploited on some level, by some individuals – but by no means, do we ever need to resort to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    Cheers! Thanks for an interesting article, and a fascinating discussion!

    • I’m only going to state this one more time, here, but I’m not going to try and be delicate about it this time:

      Those of us who are not First Nations (myself included, here!) are all settlers here (Canada — in fact, anywhere in North or South America).

      This is not derogatory, it is as plain and simple a statement as “you have social privilege”.

      Writing essay-length name-dropping and highly personalized responses to my post, stating repeatedly that you do not identify as a settler and therefore find it offensive, well, I’m getting very tired of this argument, which essentially amounts to “I don’t have settler privilege, and I’m offended that you think I do.”

      Well guess what? You do. It doesn’t matter that you were born here (as I was) or that you don’t hate First Nations people (neither do I!) or that you identify as Canadian (I don’t, because I acknowledge that it is a colonial institution — but I still acknowledge that I am a settler here regardless of this fact). You still have these privileges.

      This is a basic point of unity, that we all need to accept some time or other, in order to work to decolonize ourselves. Without that, we will not be able to move forward, as we will constantly be holding the irons in the coals or against the First Nations, while they struggle to recover and heal among themselves in the hopes that we (settlers) will at last begin the work of reconciling with them.

      That you can find a FN who disagrees with this radical theory of psychological decolonization doesn’t matter to the people who want to do that work, whether they are FN themselves or settlers like you and I. So I get it. You disagree with me. It’s your privilege to do so. But please stop coming back to this blog entry just to tell me that you disagree with me because of whatever FN person you know or have worked with who pats you on the back or gives you a high five for it. If you’re not willing to consider the possibility that your view (which once was my own) needs to change, then this isn’t a conversation, and I’m done engaging with you on it.

      • it has nothing to do with ethnicity, color, gender, or whatever you want to make of it.

        my point – is that people are human – and some divide themselves by ethnic background, others by gender – others through religious beliefs, age, music, sports teams, etc.

        My point is not about knowing “this or that” First Nations person – I know people from all walks of life. The issue you speak of happens to pertain to their politics, hence my examples of people I know who care about those politics – my point is that none of us organize ourselves a certain way, by a certain “how.”

        No group/family shows complete solidarity.

        to think otherwise is naive.

        • I’d also like to add, since it doesn’t seem clear to you yet, that there is nothing preventing settlers from becoming allies to First Nations, except denying basic points of unity, such as whether or not self-identifying as a settler is even a choice (i.e., whether or not opening this point up to debate is simply privilege-avoidance).

  9. Actually – you imply solidarity within First Nations in most of your article – and often, you lump all minorities as one and the same, in other articles I’ve read.

    I have been allied with First Nations since before you were probably even born. The majority of my friends are First Nations. They think it’s amusing that so many young people are trying to re-name Canadians as “Settlers” – because most of them happen to wear Canadian maple-leaves on their hoodies, ball caps, etc. They still crack jokes about us white-folk – but I’m always well fed, and have had the honor of attending many potlatches over the years, with my friends.

    If you ever visit a reserve around play-off time, you should count how many Hockey flags decorate the village. Those are fans who love our national sport – and endorse “white sport” by showing solidarity with hockey fans. (Afterall – Hockey is a Canadian sport).

    Your idea of being an ally is one that wants to stand on a pedestal to preach to the crowd, without even asking them “hey – what DO you know about this?” And the reason you do this, is evident through your other articles – you really can’t handle anyone challenging your opinions.

    I’ve read your blog for a while. You write a lot of interesting articles and make valid points. But as soon as anyone challenges you on anything, or points out a fundamental flaw in your argument – or says “hey – I don’t see it the way you see it” – you resort to “name calling” and accusing others of not being “allies” etc.

    It’s almost amusing, if it wasn’t so sad.

    • Gee, good for you. You can use the ageism card, while psychically predicting how I’ve lived my life between the things I haven’t stated in my many blog posts. Then you can follow that up with the race lottery windfall. You are win.

  10. Sorry – I messed up – Hockey isn’t a Canadian sport – it’s Settler sport, according to you.

    I have read a lot of your articles about gender identity – where you emphasize the importance of having the right to self-identify where gender is concerned.

    So, using the same logic – why is it up to you or anyone else to decide how I or others self-identity? Is gender the only identity that holds importance?

    If people want to label me “Settler,” after all the years I’ve identified as a Canadian – it’s called “Name calling.” It’s a means of revenge against non-indigenous. It’s not “informed” nor is it rational at this point. It’s an inflammatory means for degrading average Canadians, including those who are very well aware of First Nations/Metis/Inuit issues and history.

    You do not get to decide who is allied with First Nations, and who is not. You don’t get to decide which white folks have the right or wrong idea – because for one, you’re white – and for another – First Nations do not all agree on this issue. You can show solidarity with the radical extreme faction of “warriors” who wish to degrade others based on their ethnicity – and you have every right to label others and call them names – but it doesn’t make you right- in fact, it makes your arguments questionable.

    Why is it so hard for you to accept the fact that being Canadian means something different from being anti-Indigenous ?

    • Identifying or not, as a Settler, is akin to identifying or not, as cisgendered.

      Settler is a position of privilege. Being transgendered or non-binary in how one subjectively experiences an internal notion of gender (or lack thereof) is not. These two things are not comparable the way you hoped.

      Calling you cisgendered is not calling you names. It’s telling you that you stand in a position of relative privilege. The same goes for the word Settler.

      Settler is not anti-indigenous — except apparently in your mind.

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