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German Chancellor Angela Merkel was just named Person of the Year by both Time magazine and the Financial Times newspaper. The refugee policy she put in place has received praise from all over the world. So it surprised me when Merkel gave a speech on Monday calling multiculturalism a sham and a failure.

I live in a city where people from all over the world live together and different cultures are celebrated (in fact, last weekend I attended a German-themed festival a few blocks away from where I live). I work with people from all over the world. I enjoy foreign films and TV, and most of the music concerts I attend consist of bands and music from other countries. English was the third language of my first wife. I eat lots of ethnic food. I love multiculturalism!

But as I read her explanation, I found that I agree with her. My initial surprise was caused by the fact that she uses a somewhat different definition of multiculturalism than I do. What she was calling a failure is allowing people to move to a new country and keep all of their old culture, language, social norms, and even laws. Merkel’s point is that when someone settles in a new country, they should respect that country’s laws, and should assimilate into the values and norms of their adopted country.

That doesn’t mean they have to give up their culture. A person learning a new language does not have to forget their old language. Likewise, people can remember and celebrate their culture while embracing a new one.

I thought about the multiculturalism I enjoy, and I realize that the people I interact with who were originally from other countries have assimilated. Despite often having accents, they all speak good English and they strive to fit in to the US. I enjoy ethnic festivals and music, because those people are sharing their culture with me. They are not holed up in a neighborhood that is a version of their home country.

What makes America great is that it is a melting pot. People from other cultures strengthen our country because their cultures blend in, making something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Many of the things that we consider uniquely American originally came from other countries. Hot dogs and apple pie come from Germany and England, respectively (indeed, the original name “frankfurter” comes from Frankfurt and “hamburger” comes from Hamburg, and we all know where the “sandwich” comes from).

But the foreign laws and social strictures that conflict with those in an adopted country must be adapted. For example, people from cultures that discriminate harshly against women must learn new ways.

Ironically, I find that people who assimilate into a new country are often more interested in preserving and honoring their old culture. For example, I enjoy traditional music and dance from many countries, but when I have visited places like Bulgaria, Ireland, and Scandinavia I found that it is much harder to find people playing traditional music or dancing traditional dances there than it is here in the US. When I lived in Europe, I had a bunch of friends from Bulgaria, and they were amused by the fact that I love traditional Bulgarian music (and know how to dance to it!). Like many young people, they rejected their traditional ways and preferred modern, popular music.

I think we should help and encourage immigrants to assimilate. I live in a state where they spend lots of money translating government documents and forms into many languages. I think it would be better if they spent that money offering free English classes to immigrants. I might catch hell from my readers, but I would even go so far as to support rules that require immigrants to learn English within a reasonable amount of time (a year or so?) in order to keep their visa or to become a resident or citizen.

I think it is extremely important to preserve other cultures, but I also think it is just as important to preserve American culture. I guess I can’t call it multiculturalism any more (after all, that word implies that you have multiple separate cultures in one country, with no assimilation and little cross cultural movement or sharing).



  1. ThatGuy wrote:

    I like the idea about free English classes, though I think translating documents into Spanish and French makes decent sense in many parts of the country and probably isn’t comparable to the cost of classes. Still, English classes are a great idea.

    Also not to pick at nits but your 4th paragraph just sort of trails off.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 7:28 am | Permalink
  2. jwhat wrote:

    “I might catch hell from my readers”… argument from me, I completely agree with you.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 9:02 am | Permalink
  3. Iron Knee wrote:

    Thatguy, thanks! That’s what I get for writing a post at 2am. Fixed.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 9:29 am | Permalink
  4. Michael wrote:

    Instead of considering it catching hell, think of this as polite dissent. 🙂 I agree that it would be nice if everyone in the U.S. would be able to communicate clearly with each other. And I am all for providing more support to help immigrants learn English and other skills to function in American society. I just don’t think mandating the acquisition of these skills can be done, nor should it be attempted.

    For starters, it raises many, many questions about the evaluation process: What level of proficiency is required? How will this proficiency be demonstrated (written test? verbal test? both?)? When learning other languages, some people get to the point of understanding the language they hear, but struggle to speak the language on their own; is this sufficient? Is there an age limit? E.g., would an 85-year-old who came to spend her remaining years with her children be required to learn? What happens if some members of a family succeed in learning the language while others don’t? Do we break up families, or is it acceptable to have some of the family members act as intermediaries? If the latter is acceptable, doesn’t that undermine the goal of assimilation? Once there are some allowed exceptions to the rule, the entire goal becomes exponentially more difficult because many will try to cheat by qualifying for an exception.

    Now let’s talk cost. How many free learning centers will there be and where will they be located? Is it cost efficient to keep a center open in Paducah, KY, to support the incoming flow of 1 family every couple of years? How will transportation to/from the centers be managed, particularly if the closest center is a hundred miles away? What about child care or elder care while the responsible adults are taking classes? Given the high stakes of the evaluation (pass or get deported), there will be a lot of checks and audits done to make sure the evaluation process is fair and uncorrupt; bribes will become rampant.

    This requirement is also a bit morally dubious to me. In particular, it would disproportionately affect the poor and those with learning disabilities. In the former case, they may not have the time to learn and study, because they need to work as much as possible to put food on the table. Learning a new language is a difficult, time-consuming task, and it requires frequent opportunities to practice; poor immigrants will have disproportionately fewer such opportunities. In the latter case, people with dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyspraxia (much of which is misunderstood and often goes undiagnosed) will struggle immensely with such a task. Taking those who are already disadvantaged and adding an increased threat of deportation seems aloof to me.

    Such a policy seems particularly cruel to refugee groups, many of which view their stay here as temporary and hope to return to their homeland. Given that they do not know when (or even if) this will occur, requiring them to begin assimilation feels like salt in the wound.

    And lastly, any such mandate to learn English has one fundamental source of failure: Willful ignorance after passing. If there are communities that are truly committed to anti-assimilation, they will learn just enough to pass. Once they pass and get to stay, they form enclaves where they refuse to speak or acknowledge English. What do we do then?

    I understand where you’re coming from, and I think we should provide as much incentive to assimilate as possible. I’m just wary of universal mandates.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  5. wildwood wrote:

    As possibly one of the older people who post here, (72), I would find it daunting to have to learn a new language, if not impossible. I might eventually master some small amount of Spanish but that’s because of it’s prevalence in our culture. Some people pick up languages easily and some never do. I was listening to the radio yesterday and caught a bit about a woman who was not born here, older, but never would answer the phone because of her accent. She was talking on the radio and I had no trouble understanding her, but in her mind it was not good enough. New immigrants face immense challenges and learning the language would be of great benefit to them, but also a great burden so I think mandating would be wrong.

    One thing I think should be done is locating family groups into communities with fewer of their nationality when possible. I think allowing them to completely take over a community should be discouraged. It fosters isolationism and enables those who do not want to assimilate to do so more easily. I think there are areas in the Miami area where there are no English speakers, areas in Orange County where only Vietnamese is spoken, and I’m sure others as well. This should be discouraged somehow.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  6. westomoon wrote:

    Another “hear hear” — I especially enjoyed your observations about folklore and its preservation here by “melted” cultures.

    I am of hybrid descent — I’m half DAR / FFV, half second-generation. My 16-year-old Lithuanian grandmother started learning English by taking math classes at night in NYC — she already understood the math, which let her use it to learn the language. Both my immigrant grandparents lived in an ethnic enclave — my dad did not hear English spoken till he started school. They did not speak English elegantly, but well enough to make themselves understood, and to understand what other people said to them. They read it well enough to read a newspaper — or a ballot — and wrote it well enough to communicate what they needed to.

    Both sides of my heritage had to succumb to the melting pot — the Lithuanian grandparents learned English and cherished American freedoms and laws; my DAR grandparents had to abandon many of their own traditional beliefs — that Catholics were not white people, for example. I’ve always thought the results were wonderful.

    Michael — As I read your comment, I thought “Xeno’s paradox!” (It’s amazing what the mind retains.) One can parse any change in such a way that one proves it impossible.

    Functionally, to prosper in our society, you need to speak the language — well enough to be understood, and well enough to understand. Even if we can’t achieve this perfectly as a society, it should certainly be our goal — for the benefit of new arrivals more than any other reason. IK and Merkle are right — shifting from the “melting pot” model to the “tossed salad” model does not a healthy society make.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  7. Iron Knee wrote:

    Michael, why would there need to be any “free learning centers”? English can (and is) taught on the web, and you can use the internet at almost any library (any library that doesn’t have internet should get it under this program). Or it can be taught at that new fangled thing called “schools”, which happen to be conveniently spread out all across the country.

    As for the other “problems”, they are easily fixed. For example, refugees would come in on a special visa, so they would be exempt. If they want to stay and become residents, they would have to learn the language. Anyone over retirement age could be exempt (but also able to take the free classes if they want). I’m not worried about willful ignorance. If they can pass the final exam, they are fine. Besides, all of their friends will know English.

    As Westomoon points out, learning English will help them prosper. Like, how many jobs are there for Syrians or Lithuanians who don’t speak English?

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  8. wildwood wrote:

    I believe I’ve seen in one of the brochures that are mailed out at the beginning of the school year and again in January, free English classes either through the local school district or the county’s continuing education program here in St. Louis County. And if they are not free, the cost is nominal, like $20 or so. But I do think they are free. I’ll have to pay more attention when the next ones come.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 11:44 am | Permalink
  9. Michael wrote:

    “English can (and is) taught on the web, and you can use the internet at almost any library.” Ah, so you’re not just requiring all immigrants to master a new language in a very short amount of time, you’re also requiring them to demonstrate technological proficiency, adding a non-trivial amount of cognitive load. And as a good technologist, you’re also assuming several things: (a) Web-based instruction is effective pedagogy (it’s generally not), (b) there is sufficient Internet access (I know a professor at a top-20 CS program who lives <10 miles outside of town and his only connectivity choice as recently as 5 years ago was a 56K modem), (c) the libraries have sufficient resources and aren't getting sued by Tea Party nutcases (search for Campbell County, KY). The Internet is good for many, many things, but it's not a panacea.

    As for my reference to "free learning centers," I am not referring to specific buildings. I am referring to the general idea of a place of instruction. Yes, they could certainly be housed in schools and/or libraries. The challenge of universal education is not the physical resources. Staffing is the problem. Transportation is the problem. Day-to-day basic survival needs (e.g., Maslow's hierarchy of needs) is the problem. In short, scale is the problem. There is a reason that so many education reform attempts (e.g., MOOCs, charter schools) repeatedly fail to live up to the hype.

    "If they can pass the final exam…" You never mentioned what format the exam will be, nor whether an exam is actually a meaningful measure of their language abilities, nor how to counter the bribery and cheating that will arise due to the high stakes. Only those who have never taught actually put any faith in the ability of an exam to measure learning or cognitive ability.

    "Besides, all of their friends will know English." And they won't speak it either.

    The jobs argument is a bit of a red herring. Having lived in a town with a refugee resettlement center (one of the places designed to help them assimilate), I can tell you there are plenty of jobs for people who speak only Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, Burmese, etc. Would they be better off and have more fulfilling lives if they learned English? Absolutely. Would they be better off getting kicked out of the country because they never study nor practice, spending all of their time speaking their native language with their loved ones? Eh… But if you don't kick people out and break up families, then no one will take the exam seriously and actually learn the language.

    The idea is well intentioned, but the logistics of a mandate are a nightmare and the requisite enforcement regime is morally concerning.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  10. ebdoug wrote:

    Sides of the brain. I’ve had my charge card compromised twice in the last three years. I can still recite all sixteen digits of the cards. I lived in Berkeley for four years 1966-1970 and can still tell you the house number. NOT LANGUAGES. That side of my brain does not work. I learned while living in California that to speak a language proficiently, you must also be thinking in that language.
    A town near me was Italian where I did public health nursing in the 1980s. Fascinating because the stay at home mothers never learned English. Went to their grave speaking Italian only. I saw no problem except I can’t learn languages. I tried to get the Russian immigrants in the Jewish home to teach me some words. Purely hopeless. Wrong brain side.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  11. Iron Knee wrote:

    Refugees are a special case, but other than that, when someone decides to move here permanently, I have no problem putting some requirements on it. We already screen for criminals and certain diseases. Several of my best friends moved here (with my help) and I can tell you that they had to jump through all kinds of hoops to get residency.

    I have no problem telling people that if they want to move to the US permanently, we expect that they will learn the language. I have no doubt that there will be problems to overcome, but I have no doubt we can overcome them.

    Besides, this is a hell of a lot better than banning all Muslims from entering the country.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 4:02 pm | Permalink
  12. ntheLurch wrote:

    I would think that America would be an incredibly scary place to go to if you came from a Muslim country right now. Thankfully though, much of the younger generation helps the kids assimilate. I like the idea overall.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  13. PatriotSGT wrote:

    I also agree with you IK. As I may have said before my wife is Peruvian and immigrated here when she was in her 20’s. One of the first things she did was enroll in EASL (english as a 2nd language) at the local highschool. She did that so she could attend college, where she earned 2 dehrees and then started her own business. Our family enjiys all aspects of her heritage, the food, music, dance ( i’m not a half bad salsa dancer now. Our mixed race kids are very proud ocf their mom’s heritage and the path she took. 1 son has who is fluent in spanish and english has also leanrned french and portuguese. Another son added chinese to his list. We should embrace all cultures because its actually fun, but we should also preserve our own unique culture as well

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
  14. ThatGuy wrote:

    While I still agree that learning English is great if you want to live in the States, can we really enforce (no matter the mechanism, which as Michael points out would be extremely dicey) a standard language in a country with no official language?

    Wednesday, December 16, 2015 at 8:05 am | Permalink
  15. il-08 wrote:

    on the other side of the coin, when I lived in France for a few years, I tried very hard to learn French, with very limited success. When I moved to Belgium and tried to learn Flemish, all the locals said to me (in English), ‘why would you do that?’. Most people in Ireland don’t speak Irish. My grandmother lived in the US from when she was 20 until she passed away at 104, never spoke English. She didn’t have to, she was a traditional housewife who only dealt with the Polish speaking lower east side. New York City is not the worse for wear because she lived there.

    Bottom line to me is if someone wants to thrive in a new country, they really must learn to speak whatever language the locals speak, even if its English in Flanders. But no harm is done to a culture by having people who only speak the language of their ancestral homeland. Its the individuals who pay the price, not the culture, so to force behavior because of cultural preferences would go against what I believe this country is about.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2015 at 8:26 am | Permalink
  16. rk wrote:

    You do realize that the US does not have an official language, so arguing that people should learn English isn’t necessarily justified.

    One town in Texas has passed legislation making Spanish its official language, although it isn’t really enforced.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2015 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  17. Big Al wrote:

    My family has been in Miami since the 50’s seen all the boat people from Cuba and every island and country in South/Central America come to our city. Yea, first gens usually don’t learn the language and keep to themselves. 2nd gens straddle the divide between the cultures first. 3rd gens, 100% American, yes some still speak the old tongue but most have no interest in the old country. After all they were born here, and God forbid they were forced to visit the “old country” especially when they were young. That trip usually aids them in developing a very fine appreciation for all things American. I enjoyed very much growing up in such a multi-cultural environment.

    Friday, December 18, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink