The Language of Immigration and Politics
Whether consciously or not, our attitudes towards immigration are reflected in the words we use, causing those words to be contested. Moreover, the language we use to describe the world around us continuously evolves. A 2007 report from the National Science Foundation explains why:
Languages change for a variety of reasons. Large-scale shifts often occur in response to social, economic and political pressures. History records many examples of language change fueled by invasions, colonization and migration. Even without these kinds of influences, a language can change dramatically if enough users alter the way they speak it.
Frequently, the needs of speakers drive language change. New technologies, industries, products and experiences simply require new words. Plastic, cell phones and the Internet didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time, for example. By using new and emerging terms, we all drive language change. But the unique way that individuals speak also fuels language change. That’s because no two individuals use a language in exactly the same way. The vocabulary and phrases people use depend on where they live, their age, education level, social status and other factors. Through our interactions, we pick up new words and sayings and integrate them into our speech. Teens and young adults for example, often use different words and phrases from their parents. Some of them spread through the population and slowly change the language.
Sometimes these changes seem to have little consequence, other times these shifts in language reflect much larger changes in attitudes and understanding across society. That is particularly true of the language used to describe immigrants and immigration. In conversation, people listen to the words others use to gain insight into their beliefs. Moreover, activists and partisans often use language to persuade others. Washington Post reporter David Nakamura captured some of the tension over the language of immigration in a recent column. It begins:
Lars Larson, a conservative radio host in Portland, Ore., who supports President Trump, uses the phrase “illegal aliens” on his nationally syndicated talk show to describe immigrants living in the country unlawfully.
“I think it’s a way to define a problem,” Larson said. “We’re a nation of laws.”
Cecilia Muñoz, a longtime immigrant rights advocate who served as President Barack Obama’s domestic policy adviser, calls those words “pejorative” and prefers alternatives such as “undocumented immigrants.”
“Aliens, in the public mind, are not a good thing,” Muñoz said.
Their disagreement over how to describe an estimated population of 11 million people might seem like minor semantics in the tempestuous, decades-long debate over how to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. But people on both sides say the yawning gap in language has come to symbolize — and directly contribute to — the inability of Congress and the general public to forge consensus. An impasse on immigration was at the center of the budget fight that led to a shutdown of the federal government Saturday.
Ideas for the Classroom
Educators might consider using Nakamura’s column to discuss the importance of language and the role it plays in shaping the way we understand and respond to a situation. Below are a few suggestions for the classroom:
- As you read the column, note the language used by people on all sides of the immigration conversation. What differing words do people use to describe the same thing?
- Identify the people quoted in the column. What can you tell about their motivations from the way they are described in the article? Consider going beyond the text to learn more about the different people quoted. How do their divergent perspectives illustrate the importance of language in shaping immigration debates?
- Return to the lists of words used to describe aspects of the experience of immigration. What images do those words evoke? What is similar about the meaning of the words used by the different actors in the immigration discussion, what are the differences? You might want to refer to a dictionary or a thesaurus.
- How is language being used to shape the way people think and act in relation to immigration? What do you see as the relationship between the language we hear and the way we respond to an issue? How does language shape our behavior?
- Write a short essay or letter in response to the article on the relationship between language and the current immigration debates. How might language be used to build bridges?
- Different media outlets create style guides to set their editorial standards. Create your own style guide for journalists covering immigration. Explain your choices.