Back in February, the Pew Research Center came out with a study that I can't seem to stop thinking about. They asked people around the world to rate the importance of different factors in making a person a member of their nation--that is, a statement in the United States survey read, "Having been born in our country is very important for being truly American." Only about one third of those surveyed agreed with this statement, perhaps not surprising in this "nation of immigrants." But some of the other results did surprise me. For instance, a third of people also answered that being Christian was important to being truly American. That I found curious, considering we put religious freedom first in our Bill of Rights. Another thing that stuck with me is the emphasis we put on language. Fully 70% of respondents agreed that "Being able to speak our national language is very important for being truly American."
This doesn't shock me, but it does give me pause. Why are language and national identity so closely tied, even more so than custom and tradition? In somer parts of the world, a single country may include many languages, and people will routinely be able to express themselves in more than one. According to Culture Grams, India alone boasts hundreds of languages, and twenty-two of them have official status. Why do we have only one "national language"? And what does that mean for the roughly 25 million people in this country with limited English (including 4.7 million who were born here)?
Whatever the cause, it is clear that "being truly American" is a complex and difficult concept for many of us. Here are some recent titles that shed light on what integration looks like in communities across the country, and what it means for the people who may be expected to change crucial parts of themselves in order to become "one of us."
In A Nation of Nations, veteran NPR reporter Tom Gjelten takes a look at how the last fifty years of immigration have changed life in one county in suburban Virginia, combining demographic data and personal stories to create an engaging, enlightening narrative.
Integration Nation, by Susan E. Eaton, provides a broad view of immigrant service organizations across the country, highlighting the power of civic involvement and showing readers what successful integration efforts can look like.
There Goes the Neighborhood, by Ali Noorani, also showcases the voices of those working to overcome prejudice and promote integration--this time at the individual rather than the organizational level.
Want to hear more? Follow our Plaza Voices blog, and check out our Services to Immigrants and Refugees to see what the Denver Public Library does to welcome new Americans and foster community across the city.
Plazas are an open community space where immigrants from all over the world connect with people, information, and resources, building Denver’s global community. Come to practice a language, prepare for citizenship, pursue your goals, and create your future. Whatever you’re doing, we can help! Please see our events calendar for more information.