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Assimilation vs. Acculturation

Question: Why do some people object to hearing languages other than English spoken in American work environments?

Answer: ​When some early 21st century Americans talk about their grandparents emigrating from Europe to the United States, they sometimes note how quickly English became the family’s language of choice. That’s because immigrants arriving in the early 20th century were expected to assimilate—to become a part of the “melting pot”—so there would be no divided allegiances in the post-World War I environment.

Assimilation is a two-part process: Learn the new, lose the old. The assimilating institutions were the public schools, and children often were punished for speaking any other language.

However, people of color were not allowed into the public schools of the time. There were separate schools for blacks, Mexicans and Asians. Native American children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools to be assimilated—by learning English and wearing American clothes—and were then sent back to reservations, assuming that they survived the experience.

Assimilation made sense given the 20th century U.S. paradigm in which isolationism was a viable philosophy and the “world” was the United States. But in the 21st century the real world includes every country.

That’s why one goal of public schools is acculturation—the modifying of a particular culture as a result of exposure to other cultures—rather than assimilation.In acculturation, for example, students learn new things, such as how to speak, read and write English without sacrificing their original language or culture. It is a process of adding to, rather than substituting for.

In a global economy, it doesn’t make sense to teach American children English and then encourage them later to study another language and culture when they get to high school so they can sell to bilingual customers or manage an office in a non-English-speaking country.

Understanding Language-Related Conflict

However, those who grew up under the U.S. assimilation model sometimes don’t understand why other languages are tolerated, especially in a mainstream workplace. There are issues raised that range from safety concerns to perceptions that those who speak other languages at work are being rude and talking about those co-workers who don’t speak the language.

Yet if a U.S. employer hires blue-collar, non-English speakers as migrant or slaughterhouse workers or restaurant or hotel housekeeping employees, it is their responsibility to have a bilingual speaker available to address possible safety issues.

In 21st century American workplaces, English will be used by non-native English speakers in the performance of their job duties. However, in social conversations employees are free to speak other languages, switching back to English when a monolingual English speaker or a bilingual speaker from another culture joins them.

But there are other reasons bilingual speakers switch to their first language while at work. For example: if a customer or family member who doesn’t speak English calls when they are on break or at lunch and they need to rest by speaking their first language for a while, or as a way to bond with and relate to colleagues.

Acculturation—and the preservation of first language skills—is important for economic and national security reasons. For example, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the National Security Agency needed Arabic speakers and Arabic cultural experts who might not have been available had all Arab-speaking immigrants abandoned their language and customs in favor of English and American ways.

To aid the acculturation process, employees should be encouraged to approach colleagues who speak a language other than English and ask them how to say “hello” or other simple words. By greeting colleagues in their own language, employees can increase workplace connections and help non-English-speaking peers feel like valued members of the organization.

Jean Mavrelis is the CEO of Kochman Mavrelis Associates, Inc. (KMA)and co-author (with Thomas Kochman) of Corporate Tribalism: White Men, White Women and Cultural Diversity at Work (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Visit the KMA blog at


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