The Relationship Between Language and Migration

Some People are talking in English
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Throughout history, there has been migration among different ethnicities to many different countries. Many immigrants are unalike because they come from different histories, backgrounds and geographical settings. Thus, many decide to migrate to America to get opportunities and change their lives. The purpose of this study is to see how migration can play an important part in shaping one’s language. This paper entails details about how people change or keep their language when they migrate to the United States. The paper also talks about experiences with difficulty and new accents, keeping cultural language experiences alive, and not being able to keep up with the unknown norms of the typical American society of “speaking English”.

The United States is a big country with people that come from all over the globe. As you turn your head, you can see diversity in every way. On the train, bus, or any store and setting you enter, it is evident how everyone looks differently and speaks differently. The United States is filled with immigrants from all over the world, and that is one of the aspects that makes this country so special and welcoming to all types of people. Wherever you go, you can hear monotonous chatter ranging from people who sound the same and people who sound different. If you are simply an English speaker, by hearing non-English speakers talk the dichotomy of contrasting worlds is revealed to you.

This discussion has three arguments related to migration and language. The first argument is detailed about how some immigrants have difficulty speaking because of the way they are expected to sound. At times, people migrate to the United States and they are held at a certain standard to sound perfect when speaking. However, this is entirely impossible because when English is not your first language, it is more likely that you will have an accent and not sound like everyone else. The second argument discusses how immigrants try to change their way of speaking because of pressure in society. It also talks about not being able to communicate effectively. The third argument talks about how these language barriers affect assimilation and caused or prevented cultural diffusion in the American society changing character.

Conflicted feelings as a result of the way of speaking of our families or any loved one is a strong emotion that many of us may have experienced at some time in our lives. The concept of feeling lost, and confused about who we are because of language can vary. The levels of which these feelings exist undermines the way we are able to express ourselves. Perception, cultural backgrounds, and life experiences greatly influence language. Consequently, language helps to make us who we are in life. In many scenarios, it can be concluded that people seem to find a particular interest in accents and the way we talk to one another. In order to study the effect migration has on language, a series of interviews were conducted between two people. They are immigrants that came to the United States when they were not very young. The interviewees are a Mexican woman and a Jamaican man. By using older people, it can show how challenging it might be to adapt to a language that you are not used to. Moving elsewhere from your beloved country can bring feelings of loneliness or being left out, especially if you try very hard to fit in. It can all be so overwhelming as people try to learn and adapt despite where life takes them. This study shows how many can be drastically affected by a change in their environment. This can lead to the creation of a new person or someone who is lost and doesn’t know who they are anymore.

The development of American society is based on many different ethnicities. The history of immigration is very wide. Native Americans, Asians, Europeans, the British and all these different people set foot on American soil. Whether familiar or unfamiliar with the settings, they all try to find different coping mechanisms for entering a new world. In addition to moving to new places, language moves along with the travelers as they leave their country hoping for better. The native language is one thing that most likely never leaves a traveler.

“In the past two decades, the investigation of the ways language makes people into distinct and hierarchically ranked kinds has been a major focus in linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics” (Dick 2011). “Language can either uplift you or the people surrounding you” (Hamilton). “Language is an important form” (De Fina and King). Research findings surrounding the history of language and migration shows how most immigrants come from places that have a language that differs from where they will reside later in life. Through migration, language can be altered or preserved. Immigrants can tell many stories about their languages and it is important to conduct research and see how these changes affect the people around us. “The way we speak can give us wonderful opportunities in this life” (Hamilton). One thing research can tell us is difficulties with personal experiences with language. Another thing research can tell us is how people try to assimilate. To add on, we can also see cause and effect patterns as well as the new identities formed through language.

In order to get a full insight and full knowledge on my chosen topic, I had to interview a few people who were affected by language and migration throughout the course of their lives. Changes to your vernacular can have a big impact on how you view the world and this research showed me this. I found people in my neighborhood who came to the United States in adulthood. This is because I wanted to know if age and how people construct sentences had any effect on how society views immigrants because of the way they speak. Two adults over the age of thirty were interviewed and they described their experiences in detail about what it was like coming to the United States as an adult as well as how their language was affected. In order to find people to interview, I stood outside my building and I greeted people in a friendly manner, starting conversation, and asking them where they were from. I found two people who were willing to tell me their stories. We stood outside the lobby and each interview lasted twenty-five minutes. I had my notebook out and I wrote down everything they said to answer my questions. I asked questions about their life back in their home country, how they had trouble with the American dialogue, and how they try to fix the challenges they encounter in a new place. The main purpose of this is to see if the quality of speaking negatively affects opportunities given to a person and to also see what they do to overcome societal pressure. Unfortunately, the interviewees did not want me to take pictures but they said I could use their names. I interviewed Maria from Mexico and Akeem from Jamaica. I chose to do this because I am an immigrant as well. I came to the United States from Jamaica when I was a student in middle school. I had to modify how I speak in order to fit in and understand the people around me. This paper also adds my personal experience with language and migration.

Difficulties with Migration and Language – Maria’s Experience

One thing that we’ll never forget is our Mother Tongue, the language that makes us who we are. At times we need to make difficult decisions in order to advocate for ourselves and our well being. Maria came to the United States at the age of forty. She talks about how life was hard in Mexico and she had to leave. She mentioned that much of her family back home wants to come to the United States for a better life. Although, it is true that many come to another country for a better life, things can be difficult in that new setting too. She described not knowing where she was going or where she would stay. Being from Mexico, the only thing she has ever spoken was Spanish. Every other language was foreign to her. “The desire to understand English use patterns is tied to public and policy concerns over the assimilation of recent immigrants” (Akresh 2007).

When Maria came to the United States, she only knew Spanish and that affected her negatively. I recall her saying “They wouldn’t give me jobs, they wouldn’t rent me any homes, they wouldn’t even look at me because I did not speak their perfect American English” She was able to sell fruit on the street for a living and have small conversations in English with the few fragments of the English language she picked up. People would laugh when they heard her trying to speak. “Language is an important form of cultural capital given that it has the potential to be transformed into symbolic capital and therefore into a tool for individuals and communities to ensure better social positions” (De Fina and King 2011). This is true in Maria’s experience because if you aren’t capable of speaking a language well, you can be seen as illiterate or unworthy of a high social position. Maria also talked about how difficult it is for poor Latinas like herself. At times, if you do not understand a language there can be conflicts with others. In addition to that, if you’re not very proficient in a language, you can make requests that you do not want. Maria recalls experiences where she believed she was overcharged because she did not know how to say she did not want something in English. She also ordered stuff from stores that she did not want because she had no idea how to say no. It must be very challenging to want to communicate, but not knowing the words to say in order to do so. It is evident that language is essential to our everyday life. Despite the difficulties Maria faces, she says she finds solace at home where she can speak Spanish loud, listen to music and eat her “arroz con pollo” which is rice and chicken in English. Even though she’s not perfect at speaking the English language, she says that she will try to learn more so she can get better job opportunities and better treatment.

How Immigrants Try to Change Their Way of Speaking Because of Pressure in Society – Akeem’s Experience

Without a doubt, I think everyone has tried to fit in somewhere at some point. Akeem came to the United States at the age of thirty-five. He grew up in Jamaica where the people speak English, but it’s broken. This dialect is called Patois. Akeem describes his experience landing in a new place different from his home country. He had no issue understanding others because he already understood English. Akeem describes how one day he called a cab and the driver requested his location. He said he repeatedly told the driver where he was in his heavy Jamaican accent and the driver hung up the phone because he was annoyed. Akeem said “Mi did feel like a eediat, feel like seh mi a likkle pickney weh jus a learn how fi talk” This translates to: I felt like an idiot, I felt like a baby just learning how to talk. There were also a series of encounters where he describes how he would talk to others and they would tell him to speak English. This is sad because Caribbean people do speak English. “An immigrant’s mother tongue can be an important determinant of later English proficiency if the mother tongue bears linguistic similarities to English” (Espenshade and Fu 1997).

Jamaican Patois is similar to English so that makes it easy for Jamaicans to communicate with Americans or English speakers. Even though some do not have the perfect idea of American English, there is still a sense of understanding. As a result of the challenges faced, this interviewee worked on the way he spoke and was able to perfect his English and sound like the people around him. He describes how he would say “bro” instead of “man” and he would try to make his sentences perfect and sound professional so he could get employed. This is fascinating because the majority of people that come to the U.S. need jobs and this shows that there is some hope because people do want to learn.

“Chiswick (1978:899) noted that recent immigrants arrive in the United States with limited knowledge of the customs, language, and firm-specific training needed to succeed in the U.S. labor market” (Hamilton 2014). The system is set up so that if you’re not knowledgeable about the labor market, you’ll barely make it. Akeem’s attempt to sound more professional was successful and he found that more people would gravitate towards him when he changed the way he spoke. One person even told him that he sounds American. He added “I don’t like this new me. I wish I could be understood and accepted for the way I used to talk when I got to the U.S.” This suggests to me that after getting accepted, you can feel lost about who you are. I relate to Akeem’s story because I came from Jamaica to the United States. When I started school in America, I didn’t understand some of the kids. The slang they used was foreign to me and I had to study the people around me in order to learn and understand. The way I spoke would cause people to look at me weird and the kids would make fun of me saying I did not know English and that I sounded like I came from a jungle. I was sad and it bothered me how they spelled the word colour “color”, and they said “go out” instead of “together with”. It was so weird to me but I started to understand. I think that overtime I assimilated into the American culture because whenever I try to speak Patois now, I sound funny. I don’t sound the way I used to. This is an example of how one can change themselves to be like the ones around them.

Adapting to Assimilation and Living with New Language Identity

In a new world, we can feel lost and different. Bullying by people who are deemed normal in the eyes of society can belittle us. However, we cannot help who we are. The language we grew up speaking is what holds us together and deems us different from people who are not from our home country. “In the past two decades, the investigation of the ways language makes people into distinct and hierarchically ranked kinds has been a major focus in linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics” (Dick 2011). This gives the impression that language is a very essential thing. In America, to be literate means to speak perfect English. If you don’t talk a certain way, you’re put into a group. The fact that people who are not perfect at speaking the English language gets separated from others shows the basis of language and its impact on our colossal world. “Even in settings where there is consensus that languages other than English should be allowed, such as courtrooms, minority languages and their speakers are marginalized” (Dick 2011).

There are many places where immigrants are allowed to express themselves in their own language but English remains dominant as people still view these speakers as little. Both interviewees as well as counterparts discuss the hard time they experience with a language that is different from their own. Although they faced hardships, they do want to learn how to adapt more and become better speakers based on how society sees them. Many occurrences such as job interviews or movie scenes, undoubtedly shows that if someone sees an immigrant talking English that is considered good, it could mean that they’re determined as they took a lot of time to try and invest time into learning the language. That driving force and success of learning a new language can give a person many good opportunities in life. For example, if an English speaker moved to China and learned the language, it is more likely that the English speaker would be able to speak to everyone they interact with in China clearly. “English is the predominant language used in social discourse and in business transactions, and the ability to communicate in English is thus linked with success in adjusting to life in America (Gordon 1964).” (Espenshade and Fu 1997). Society views a successful individual in America as someone who is eloquent and speaks well. This leaves room for discrimination against immigrants. If everyone in America is held to a high standard and expected to speak perfect, there will be room for disagreements. This can also make people who don’t speak well feel worthless. Everyone isn’t capable of talking like how society wants us to talk, and that is okay.

Language is the way the world communicates. Language is arguably one of the most important components of what makes a society unique. Different languages derived from different geographical settings and when someone migrates, confusion can arise. We use language to make sense of abstract thoughts, do business, advocate for our needs and communicate with the people around. However, it can be really tough when we don’t know how to express ourselves in a different setting away from the things we are used to. Many immigrants struggle with having an accent or not being able to speak the language perfectly of wherever they migrate to.

Firstly, This discussion focuses on some immigrants have difficulty in speaking English because of the way they are expected to sound. Consequently, stress is added to immigrants and they can lose hope and doubt their self-worth. Secondly, this paper talks about how some immigrants try to fit in when they’re not used to being in a particular environment. By becoming what you’re not, you’re suddenly accepted, but under many circumstances you can still feel like an outsider. The last thing this paper discusses is adapting to your new environment, living with a new identity and the standards for speaking in the United States.

In life, we can all be hit with life-changing circumstances that might cause us to move elsewhere. No matter where we go, we can see how people talk differently. It’s up to us whether we try to change or keep our roots. We can adapt and pretend to be someone we are not, but it is important to keep our mother tongue alive and never forget who we are or where we came from. Language is important as it guides our speech. We need it to communicate and keep our ethnicities connected.


Akresh, Ilana Redstone. 2007 “Contexts of English Language Use among Immigrants to the United States.” The International Migration Review 41(4): 930-55.

De Fina, Anna, and Kendall A King. 2011″Language Problem or Language Conflict? Narratives of Immigrant Women’s Experiences in the US.” Discourse Studies 13(2): 163-88.

Dick, Hilary Parsons. 2011 “Language and Migration to the United States.” Annual Review of Anthropology 40 :227-40.

Espenshade, Thomas J., and Haishan Fu. 1997 “An Analysis of English-Language Proficiency among U.S. Immigrants.” American Sociological Review 62(2): 288-305.

Hamilton, Tod G. 2014 “Selection, Language Heritage, and the Earnings Trajectories of Black Immigrants in the United States.” Demography 51(3): 975-1002.

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