The Netherlands has recently passed laws requiring foreigners who wish to become citizens to pass a language and culture exam. Some say the laws are harsh and will create further alienation, some say it’s a way for foreigners, especially Islamic immigrants, to integrate into Western European culture. Everyone is debating “Who’s right?”
My editorial on a major debate in France and throughout Europe relies on my personal history and experiences as an American expatriate hoping to someday become a French citizen.
As a child of a naturalized Filipino-American, I see the value and importance in learning the host country’s language. As an American who wishes to become a French citizen, I experience the difficulty in taking on an a new culture and language every day. How does one learn the language? Through participation.
Time Magazine released the above video featuring the life of an Islamic family that has been in the Netherlands for over 16 years. The parents barely speak any Dutch and today, they’re feeling the pressure from the Dutch community and government to either learn the national language or face the political and religious strife in their native country of Pakistan. Forced with the possibility of death, this husband and wife are just now learning the language for survival. I can relate.
My mom was one of eight children living in extreme third world poverty with a corrupt Filipino government and police force where child prostitution and searching for food in landfills were normal ways of feeding large, poverty stricken families. My mom and aunts married Americans from the land of opportunity to escape a life full of dead ends.
In order to ensure their futures and that they would never return to their painful past, they learned the language, assimilated their children, got educations, and participated in the community. They worked hard to assimilate and to be seen as a part of the whole. I remember my mom studying with home made flash cards the history of the United States in order to pass her citizenship test and I especially recall the pride our family felt when she was sworn in as a United States citizen over a decade ago.
Fast forward to today. I’m in my mother’s situation. An American married to a French national desiring to become a French citizen. I studied French in high school and university for a total of five years, plus the history and politics of France. When I got to France, I realized I knew only a tiny fraction of the real living breathing French culture and language that now shapes my life. The fear of failing to integrate was crippling at first; I was afraid to make grammar mistakes and appear like a fool despite all the work I had done to get to this point of living in France.
In order to live in France today and to have a French permanent resident visa, foreigners must pass a basic language test and if the language level isn’t high enough, foreigners must enroll State sponsored language and assimilation classes. The intent of these programs is to reduce welfare dependency and to assimilate foreigners into the French and European cultures.
In order to break the barriers that stood in the way of integration, I spent a summer – three months – in an intensive full time language program sponsored by France, the European Union, and the Region of the Rhone Alps to learn enough French to find a job. The foreigners in the class were refugees from war torn eastern European countries like Kosovo and Bosnia, there were refugees from Africa and the middle east, and the majority being Arabs from north Africa. I was the only American in the entire school.
Many of the students had been in France for many years – some for twenty years – and had never learned French. These people survived through living in ghettos and only doing business with other Arabs and eastern Europeans. Some students dropped out because they knew they’d have to work after passing the competency test. The French government is cutting down on welfare handouts to those competent enough to work.
Throughout the program, there was a high sense of welfare dependency and cultural alienation from a good majority of the arab, eastern European, and Muslim students. The aggression from such a high level of alienation resulted in many physical and verbal altercations at the school between students who wanted to integrate and those who dragged their feet and the teachers who were paid by the government to make sure these people learned enough French to find jobs.
By the end of the summer, some students who broke down their walls of fear learned the language quickly and found jobs. Some quit, going back to the safety and familiarity of their ghettos and the frustration of feeling like outsiders. The only way those of us could learn French was to let our guards down and realize that we were all- despite our social, financial, and cultural backgrounds – on the same level and were there for the same purpose: to become French citizens on paper and in heart.
Through participation, active learning, and being literally forced to get out and practice our French in a social and professional context through finding internships and jobs we fast tracked our language and social assimilation. I got an internship for three weeks teaching job searching skills and coaching students for France’s national vocational school, AFPA, teaching in French full time. The experience proved invaluable professionally and socially for me: I ended up making friends with several of the instructors at the school.
A retired Moroccan man in the class, the same age of the woman in Time’s video, and in moderately poor physical health finally learned French after thirty years of living and having his own home, family, and company in France. When he could finally communicate full thoughts and sentences in French, joy overwhelmed him and he expressed that he felt like his world entire opened up for the first time. A man who came to class quiet and discouraged transformed into a smiling, talkative contributor to the class.
There is a lot of fear operating behind the walls of natives and foreigners. Natives fear that foreigners just want the financial and social benefits of living in their homeland and foreigners feel that they’ll be persecuted regardless of learning the new host language. Each side, to some degree, is right. However, learning a host country’s language and employing the ability to communicate our differences in ideas and ways of living is just the first step to creating an entirely new society of mutual understanding.
To the French, especially to the countrymen in the French alps, I’ll always be a foreigner. Even if I become a citizen, raise my children as French citizens, earn my money in France, and pay French taxes I’ll have a part of me that makes me different – and that’s OK. However, to refuse to learn the language and participate in the culture of the country that has accepted me into its society and extended its many benefits is just plain rude and limiting on both social and professional levels.
Both natives and foreigners don’t know what they’re missing out on when they don’t reach out to communicate their ideas in a language that unites them both. Foreigners are transformed when they learn the local language as they go from merely inhabitants to participants to active citizens. Knowledge and power come from the ability to understand and it’s that understanding that gives the ability to transform our surroundings because we, through the gift of language, have finally found our empowering voice to speak change.
The Netherlands and the rest of Europe aren’t telling Muslim residents to give up their language or religion. They’re asking them to learn the language and integrate as residents and citizens of a European society. I don’t see many Muslim countries doing the same. As far as I’m concerned, I can do that and so should everyone that wants to make their life in a new country.