Written by: Christopher Houtkamp
On the 11th of May, the MIME consortium in Amsterdam invited Ruud Koopmans, Professor of Sociology and Migration at the Humboldt Universität in Berlin, for a small-scale brainstorm session on the connection between language and integration of minorities. The session was particularly interesting, because Koopmans treats language in a considerably different way than most members of the MIME-consortium. His approach becomes apparent when reading his forthcoming article ‘Does Assimilation Work? Socio-Cultural Determinants of Labour Market Participation of European Muslims’. In this study language proficiency is one of the factors used to explain labour market success of immigrants. In other words: Koopmans focusses predominantly on the instrumental value of language for success in other areas, rather than on its intrinsic and/or cultural value.
Koopmans argues in favour of the assimilation of immigrants, also from a linguistic perspective. Knowledge of the language of the host-society (e.g., German, Dutch) has a strong positive effect on labour-market success. In contrast, knowledge of the mother-tongue has either no or even a slight negative impact. It has to be noted that Koopmans’ concept of ‘assimilation’ does not necessarily imply that minorities have to forsake their own cultural identity. He envisions that immigrants should at least fully adopt the language of the host-society, which should always be their first priority. However, after having achieved this, there is no reason for them not to foster their own mother-tongue, even in education. He makes an exception where it concerns primary school children: since they more often than not only speak their mother tongue at home, the focus of the formal education system should lie exclusively on the host-society language. In fact, migrant-parents should also be encouraged to speak the host-society language at home: otherwise the children run the risk of not mastering this language at all, which will hurt their labour-market chances in the later stages of their lives.
The audience made a few remarks to Koopmans’ perspective that are worth mentioning. First of all, Koopmans’ research seems to barely account for developments of transnationalism, which can fundamentally impact the willingness and capability of migrants to assimilate in their host-societies. Furthermore, in such a transnational environment, mastery of the mother-tongue can become a bigger asset than it is now: it could facilitate the contact between ethnic peers in different EU-countries (e.g. Turks in the Netherlands and in Germany) and therefore expand the mobility-options of migrants within Europe. Secondly, language has , alongside an economic, also a strong cultural value. In the context of the EU, which prides itself for its ‘unity in diversity’, these cultural aspects might be equally as important as economic considerations.
One of the conclusions that can be drawn after the session was that both Professor Koopmans and the MIME-consortium can learn a lot from each other. Koopmans shows us that when designing a language policy we should certainly not neglect the economic implications our proposals could have. Furthermore, his research proves that assimilation still is the best route to economic success, a conclusion that should give us food for thought. On the other hand, the transnational and cultural aspects of language and integration policy are not prioritised in Koopmans’ work, and for that matter, in the work of many integration scholars. It could potentially be enriching were they to try and implement these factors in their studies. To conclude, the dialogue between Professor Koopmans and MIME Amsterdam was thought-provoking: it showed how much the consortium can benefit from an outsider’s perspective.