Tag Archives: linguistic assimilation

The Life of First-Generation Immigrants in Canada

As part of our efforts to better understand global migration, we accept submissions from people or groups who have experience or direct involvement with immigration. This post, submitted by My Visa Source, a Canadian immigration firm, examines the experience of first-generation immigrants to Canada.

Leaving your familiar homeland to live out your life in a new and radically different environment is an experience both difficult and rewarding. Despite the demands of learning a new language and cultural framework and the many risks inherent in the transition to a new country, millions choose to take up this challenge every single year.

Why Do People Choose the Life of a First-Generation Immigrant?

Few opt for the life of an immigrant out of a mere sense of adventure and curiosity. In most cases, one or more of the following factors will be involved in the decision:

  • The prospect of a better economic situation
  • The opportunity for the immigrant or his/her children to achieve important educational goals
  • The desire to be with relatives or friends who have already immigrated
  • Conditions of poverty, persecution, or discrimination in their native land

In sum, we could say that most immigrants are looking for a chance to live a better life. They often have not only their own futures in view, but also the future betterment of their children and grandchildren.

How Is a First-Generation Immigrant Defined?

“First-generation immigrant,” as used here and in most other contexts, refers to a foreign-born individual who becomes a citizen or permanent resident of another nation. Some have used the term to refer to the first generation born in the new land, but we shall refer to that as “second generation” immigrant. In Canada, 55% of second generation immigrants had two foreign-born parents, with the remaining 45% having only one.

The National Household Survey of 2011 broke down the Canadian population as follows:

  1. 22% were first-generation immigrants
  2. 17% were second-generation
  3. 61% were third-generation or more

Where Do Most First-Generation Immigrants Live?

Over 80% of Canadian immigrant families live in major metropolitan areas like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. They are fairly evenly spread across the country, but British Columbia and Ontario are the only two provinces where first and second generation immigrants total over 50% of the population. Quebec and Newfoundland have significantly low numbers of immigrants.

How Long Does Assimilation Take?

Most second generation immigrants in Canada are fully assimilated, but those born abroad may take a life time to adjust to the culture. In the process, they will also contribute to the culture, enriching it and expanding it. Canadian immigrants come from over 200 nations of the world, so it is not surprising if many immigrants experience intense “culture shock” upon first arrival. Nonetheless, with a willingness to be flexible and learn new things, a greater “blending in” will inevitably occur with the passing of time.

One of the main challenges to Canadian first-generation immigrants is simply finding adequate employment. Studies of Canadian immigrants over the last 25 years have shown that linguistic, cultural, and informational barriers tend to make their employment opportunities fewer and lower-paying initially. In the long-term, however, immigrants actually out-perform their Canadian-born counterparts. Blending into the workforce, or “economic assimilation,” is one important aspect of immigrant assimilation.

While immigrants to Canada were mostly from Europe, today most come from Asia. This has increased the linguistic and cultural “distance” at which immigrants begin assimilation, but this has not changed the fact that those born in Canada grow up well integrated into the new language and cultural systems. Even ethnic “visibility” decreases over time: 60% of first-generation immigrants to Canada are considered “visible immigrants,” 30% of second-generation, and only 1% of third-generation. Finally, there is some debate as to whether Canada will be a “melting pot” or a “cultural mosaic” in years ahead. If the latter, the degree of assimilation required will be lessened.

How Strong are First-Generation Immigrant Families?

Most Canadian immigrants tend to have very strong familial bonds. Partly, this stems from the cultural milieu of their country of origin, but it also is tied in with the immigrant situation. A strong sense of family obligation often leads children of first-generation immigrants to high academic achievement as well as long-term residence with/near their parents. While the stresses and strains of the immigration undertaking can be great, the overall effect on immigrant families is generally beneficial in every realm: academic, economic, and social.

The Prospects for Assimilation for First-Generation Immigrants

While immigrant communities often tend to initially form small enclaves in major cities, it only takes one generation for assimilation to occur. First-generation immigrants may never fully forget the ways of “the old country,” but they can gradually acquire a second culture in “the new country.” Total immersion will, over time, wear away the effects of culture shock. New friends and acquaintances, local family ties, and participation in social events will help them to “feel at home” and gain a sense of belonging. Like transplanted trees, first-generation immigrants’ lives will thrive as they put down deep roots in new soil.

Related reading

This section has been added by Open Borders: The Case editorial staff. The author of the original piece is not responsible for it.

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Where are the Spanish tweets?

A few years ago I was on a date with an open borders skeptic. While chatting my date complained that Hispanics were not assimilating quickly enough and refused to learn the language. I pointed out that her family was descended from Poles who had come over only a few generations ago. Today not one of them, including herself, could speak Polish. Why did she think Spanish would fare any better?

My date was not alone in her concern about language assimilation. One does not need to search far to find someone making the same basic argument: X group is not learning the language quickly enough. This will lead to the destruction of our nation! Or worse – the United States will become another Belgium.

I could write a few thousand words discussing why the United States doesn’t have to worry about becoming Belgium. Not that there is anything wrong with Belgium. Instead though I will present a question and a map.

Where are the Spanish tweets?


J.B. Post, Ken, and Peter Berlich have constructed a map showing the world by language use in twitter. North American is solidly grey (English). The only exception is the urban core of Quebec where French (in violet) has managed to persist. A few spots of pink (Spanish) can be seen in Mexico, but they fail to penetrate the US border. The full map can be shown here.

The beauty of the twitter map is that it shows us the language of choice among the millennial demographic, twitter’s core user base. First generation migrants may retain use of their native tongues but their millennial children certainly aren’t tweeting in Spanish, Chinese, or Tagalog. If migrants are not assimilating quickly enough we should see Spanish tweets dominating Texas, Florida, and California. Instead we see English continues to dominate the North American continent. Indeed, I suspect that the internet age has encouraged both English adoption among millennial children of migrants and by the world as a whole.

Further Reading:

Open Borders: The Case Page on Linguistic Assimilation, Linguistic and Cultural Fluency Requirements, and Assimilation Problems

Nathan Smith on Linguistic Externalities.

Vipul Naik on Two subtle lessons from the “Your in America” twitter bot. 

Open Borders page on Bloggers as Illegal Immigrants.

The Pledge

I am guilty of often being a moral absolutist – an ideologue. I try to avoid it, but it’s a failing of mine. I often mentally frame arguments in “all or nothing” terms, and sometimes that can lead me away from positive solutions. As an example: It’s my natural inclination to be opposed to keyhole solutions such as that of immigrants paying an up-front cost to immigrate that is paid back after a certain period. In my mind, such a cost has the potential to be prohibitive to the very poorest people of the world, who are those who stand to gain the most by coming to a first-world country and most harmed by not being able to.

Since I so strongly believe that freedom of movement is an inalienable right, such half-measures strike me as weak compromises. However, that’s my flaw. The keyhole solution outlined above, while it may have a number of negatives when compared to open borders, is none the less vastly and absolutely better than our current situation. There’s no reason for me to oppose it, other than my tendency to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

While we’re on the subject of my flaws, we might as well bring up another that you’ll find to be directly related – pride. I am too proud by far in many areas of my life. I am the kind of person who often loses out on getting things I actually want because I am unable to humble myself to get them. And worse than my own pride is the fact that I tend to project pride onto others – for example, if a law were passed tomorrow that said anyone could immigrate to America as long as the would-be immigrant bowed in reverence before some icon of the country – whether it be the current President, the flag, some statue, doesn’t matter – I would oppose this with every fiber of my being. I would find it a disgusting, dehumanizing law. However, anyone who could swallow their pride and just ignore the display as the petty thing it was would find that their life was much improved – after all, what’s a little genuflection if it means the rest of your life can be lived in the first world? But again, such is my flaw.

However, I am attempting to correct these flaws – or at least compensate for them. I am trying to grow as a person, and so I am trying to open my eyes to potential solutions that my flaws might otherwise prohibit. And in so doing, I’ve come to think about victim-blaming.

Ask most people, and they’ll tell you victim-blaming is a horrible thing to do. Blaming a woman for getting raped, a black man for getting wrongfully arrested, or a foreigner for not being allowed to immigrate and you’re seen as uncompassionate at best, hateful and bigoted at worst. But isn’t that just the sin of pride all over again? What if there really was something that the woman could have done to avoid her fate, the black man to avoid the arrest, and the foreigner to make immigration easier? Is it wrong to theorize about what the victim might do differently, if the end result is fewer rapes, fewer wrongful arrests, and more immigration?

I’ll avoid the specifics on the other example topics, but what if there was something that foreigners could do to make allowing them to immigrate more politically viable? Even if it was something humiliating or demeaning, something that would infuriate anyone with even an ounce of pride? Just as a hypothetical: Imagine that there was a small town in a third-world country where almost everyone wanted to emigrate to America. And imagine that as part of their campaign for acceptance, they turned their whole town into a mock-suburbia; they wore American-style clothes, ate American-style food, baked apple pie and played baseball, spoke English exclusively and maybe even learned to
fake a Midwestern drawl. Imagine that they renamed their streets after American presidents, got rid of all of their religious materials (except Christian, of course), said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, and even wore makeup to disguise their skin tone. Now if you’ve managed to read this far without the bile rising to the back of your throat, imagine this: Imagine it worked. Imagine that their efforts, perhaps chronicled by some journalist, so swayed the American populace that American leaders allowed the whole town to emigrate to America. Despite the demeaning trial they went through, they now get to live their lives in a safer, more prosperous environment. They get what they wanted.

What then? If it worked, would we encourage others to copy their efforts? We could say, “well, they shouldn’t have to do that!” And I agree – they shouldn’t. To the core of me, such an act would disgust me. But isn’t that just the pride talking? Shouldn’t we care more about the end result, if the end result is something much better than the trials to get there?

If the answer is yes, let’s look at perhaps a more realistic application of the idea. What if those that wanted to emigrate to America (or any other country, for that matter) signed a Pledge, a formal (if legally meaningless) document where they swear to uphold the ideals of whatever country they wish to enter; to be productive and not draw on social services; to learn the language and speak it exclusively; to adhere to the mores and cultural norms of their new homeland. Such a document is meaningless in terms of legal fact – but such symbols have always held power over the minds of men. If you think signing a non-legally-binding document where you promise to enforce certain rules on yourself is absurd, remember that the entire American government is predicated on such an absurd idea. And such ideas, no matter how absurd, can sway people.

Such a pledge might be demeaning, and in a just world no one would have to sign it in order to move to a new country. But could it work – or at the very least, could it help? That’s the real question we should be asking.

Are the linguistic externalities of open borders important?

One of the most obvious, automatic arguments against open borders is that people won’t be able to understand each other. “They don’t speak English,” is one of the knee-jerk complaints about (some) immigrants. People will tell anecdotes about how they went into the grocery store and wanted to ask where the soup was, and the employees couldn’t help them because they were only Spanish-speaking. I don’t think I’ve seen the movie  Now, as our linguistic assimilation page points out:

To the extent that the problem [of the failure of linguistic assimilation] is genuine, a keyhole solution to it is to impose linguistic and cultural fluency requirements as a precondition for migration.

And a billion people or more speak English, so that still opens up a huge amount of immigration. Of course, more would learn. But let’s set that aside for the moment. Suppose we’re thinking about the immigration of non-English speakers.

Let me respond first of all to the supermarket anecdote. The supermarket could presumably hire English-speaking employees. The supermarket would presumably have to pay more to English-speaking employees, reflecting their greater economic value and the greater opportunity cost of their time. The supermarket would pass through the costs associated with their higher wage bill to customers. So customers face a trade-off: English-speaking staff, or higher prices. The question is not, would you rather have English-speaking staff in the grocery store, but, is it worth it to pay 1% or 5% or whatever more for your groceries to have English-speaking staff? If most customers think it is worth it, the supermarket, to remain competitive and maximize profits, would presumably give customers what they want by raising prices and hiring English-speaking staff. So, the fact that the supermarket has hired non-English-speaking staff is evidence that most customers prefer lower prices. Maybe you’re not most customers. Maybe you’d be willing to pay 5% extra for your groceries so that the supermarket staff would be able to tell you where the soup is in English. But why should the government use force to make your preferences prevail over other consumers’ preferences? Notice, by the way, that the conflict is not, for the most part, between English-speakers and non-English-speakers, but among English-speakers with difference preferences over grocery prices versus ease of communication with supermarket staff.

Moreover, the customer who wants English-speaking help may not have to do more than drive down the street to a different grocery store. Typically, free -market capitalism offers a wide variety of goods and services, catering to all tastes, and even minority and niche markets get served. It’s quite possible that the customer who complains about the non-English-speaking staff is actually, at the same time, revealing his preference for non-English-speaking staff plus low prices, by shopping at the supermarket that employs them when other supermarkets, who insist on good English, are available, albeit they charge more. In that sense, it’s improper to regard the lack of linguistic assimilation as a downside of open borders at all. I should be careful not to exaggerate here. Real world markets are imperfect, and the rough-and-tumble of markets probably will see some consumers’ welfare fall, more or less randomly, because of the interaction of these imperfections with their preferences. If you live in a small town with only a few shops, the arrival of immigrants really might deprive you of your preferred shopping environment as other people’s preferences create a new, less English-speaking equilibrium. In the same way, if white hats become fashionable, black hat lovers may suffer as stores don’t bother to carry the unpopular item. But such effects will be small, and society as a whole will enjoy gains from trade with immigrants.

A certain misunderstanding is worth guarding against at this point. Suppose we compare two worlds, in the first of which a country’s 300 million people speak a few dozen languages and have no language in common, whereas in the second, the country’s 300 million people speak those few dozen languages plus they all speak another language which is the common language of the country. Clearly the second situation is better. But that’s simply because the second country has been given, ex hypothesi, a large endowment of extra human capital. In reality, there is an opportunity cost to acquiring human capital. So this is the wrong thought experiment with which to evaluate the effects of open borders.

The starting point of an economic analysis of the effects of linguistic diversity must be that (a) linguistic human capital is valuable, but (b) immigrants who come to a country despite their lack of the appropriate linguistic human capital reveal that they gain thereby, and (c) natives who do business with immigrants despite their lack of the appropriate linguistic human capital reveal that they gain thereby. Markets and prices should accurately value linguistic human capital, and should efficiently resolve the question of whether it is worth it for this or that non-speaker of a country’s dominant language to immigrate or not. The only case which is definitely an exception to this market efficiency argument is when people use language for non-market cooperation, e.g., when you go up to a stranger on the street and ask him for the time, or for directions.

Now, being able to ask strangers for directions and rely, not on getting them since they might not be able or willing to help, but at least on having a common language, certainly has some economic value. The inconvenience of asking two or three people for directions and finding that they are non-English speakers, thus wasting one’s own time and theirs, is certainly a negative externality likely to be associated with open borders. Given the rarity of the event in question, however, I am inclined to rate the importance of the negative linguistic externalities of open borders as low to the point of being trivial. But since this argument pops up again and again, am I, perhaps, missing something? Are the negative externalities of lacking a common language somehow much more important than I suppose? Why? How could this be measured?