Word of the Week: Assimilation

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In its most common meaning, assimilation refers to the process whereby a member of a minority group gradually adopts the customs or attitudes of the majority culture (sentences 1, 3, and 5). The word can also describe the way in which we mentally record and remember new information (sentences 2 and 4)

  1. In 19th century America, the most active Indian reform organizations were the Women’s National Indian Association (WNIA) and the Indian Rights Association (IRA), both of which urged the gradual assimilation of Indians. (Mary Beth Norton et. al., A People and a Nation (9e), Cengage Learning, p. 438)
  2. The hard work of becoming a nurse practitioner did not worry her. What worried her was the assimilation of all the new and unfamiliar information she would have to master.
  3. Although she had been living in the United States for ten years, she was not striving for complete assimilation into the culture. She preferred, instead, to be only partially assimilated, retaining her own culture’s attitudes toward family and work, with family coming first and work second.
  4. The professor offered a number of learning techniques to encourage the assimilation of all the new and unfamiliar information.
  5. Rulers of the Roman Empire believed in forced assimilation, but in the end their attempts to force the conquered to consider themselves as Romans, or even worse, servants of Rome, brought down the empire.


Memory Peg.To remember the main meaning of assimilation, think of the late nineteenth-century treatment of Native-Americans who were subjected to forced assimilation. Their children were sent to reservation schools, where they had to wear white people’s clothing and were severely punished for speaking their own language (see the photo below). To remember the second meaning, attach it to its much simpler synonym, which is "learn." Consider what strategies you use to learn new information and connect those same strategies to assimilation.

Carlisle pupils
Native-American students attending a reservation school at the turn of the 20th century.
[The image is in the public domain.]


Specialized Use in Biology. Biological assimilation refers to the process by which animals and plants absorb nutrients from the environment so that they can be used to build living tissue. In plants, it is sap that carries the nutrients to plant cells. In animals, biological assimilation is the step that follows digestion, which breaks complex substances down into simpler, more absorbable forms. Then the blood stream carries these more absorbable food forms to the body’s cells.


Comprehension Checks

1. Which of the following sentences uses assimilation correctly?

Those who employed Chinese immigrants to help build the country’s railroads were interested only in their labor; they did care about the workers’ assimilation into the larger culture.
The smuggler was bringing a rare snake into the country but forgot to punch enough holes into his suitcase and the snake died of assimilation.
The assimilation between the twins was amazing; even their own mother could sometimes not tell them apart.

2. Chaz Bono changed gender a few years ago. When he says "I absolutely believe in assimilation...I don’t look at sexual orientation as that big of a deal. It’s just an orientation," does he argue that transgenders deserve special treatment? Please explain your answer.

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Last update of this page: April 22, 2014