Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Does common language really lead to integration?

Radio 4 broadcast a very moving documentary in its 9:00am slot this morning about twin sisters who have converted to religious faith from an agnostic upbringing - one to Christianity, the other to Islam. The programme followed their journey over the course of a year when their mother was diagnosed with cancer and they were each expecting their second children.

The dialogue between the sisters was fascinating and the eventual awakening of their terminally ill mother to the possibility of God was amazing. It's well worth checking out on iplayer if you haven't heard it before.

It followed a report on the Today programme about the integration of Muslims into German society following the publication of a controversial book arguing that the wave of Islamic immigration into Germany has not brought any benefits and Angela Merkel's recent speech announcing that multi-culturalism had failed.

I was left scratching my head at the end of it. Didn't the Germans invite Turkish 'guest workers' to their country to take the plethora of factory jobs being created in the sixties and seventies by the then West Germany's economic boom?

One of the points being made was that migrants were slow to learn German or in some cases were not learning German at all. It's an example of the tendency to judge the success or failure of integration purely on the language issue. We think that if people learn our language, they integrate. I think what the Radio 4 documentary this morning suggested was that sisters with a common language and common upbringing were not 'integrated' in the sense that they saw eye-to-eye on some pretty fundamental issues arising from their different faiths.

Common language helps but it is not the touchstone of integration. I note the fact that the early Christians spoke Greek which was OK in the Greek speaking parts of the Roman empire - Greece, Asia minor (though even there Greek was not the native language, it was an imperial imposition); but what about in Rome? Rome was a Latin-speaking city yet when Paul wrote to the churches there, he wrote in Greek. He was writing to a migrant cult that had taken hold in the slums where the 'guest workers' lived, those who had come seeking a better life in the imperial capital.

Paul didn't tell the Roman followers of Jesus that the key to success in mission was learning Latin. It would probably have helped. If Robert Jewett is right, one of the reasons Paul wrote to the churches in the city was get support for his mission to Spain that was being funded by Phoebe. The support in question could well have Latin speakers who would have helped smooth Paul's passage into that part of the empire.

Clearly speaking the host language helps integration at the some pretty basic levels - shopping, accessing health care and education. So maybe the Germans should have been welcoming their guest workers with help to acquire the necessary language skills; basic hospitality would suggest that.

But I'm not sure that lack of common language is the reason for opposition to migration across Europe, a continent whose history has been made by wave after wave of migration. We need to look elsewhere to find that.


Charles said...

A very interesting post- Thankyou
I think you have made the case that a common language does not lead to integration, but I would contend that without a common language integration while not impossible is very very difficult

simon said...

I agree that being able to communicate is essential for good social relations and that therefore, if we all speak the same language, we're likely to get on better.
But i think that underlying the language issue is the question of good will and welcome. Are we predisposed to welcome the stranger in our midst, even if they don't speak our language, or not?
At a practical level, such welcome would be seen in the widespread and free provision of language classes for all migrants.