ERIC Identifier: ED436982
Publication Date: 1999-12-00
Author: Hinton, Leanne
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Involuntary Language Loss among Immigrants: Asian-American
Linguistic Autobiographies. ERIC Digest.
Despite decades of research findings to the contrary, there is still a common
belief that bilingualism is bad for children and unpatriotic, and that the only
way to be a true American is to leave behind any other language and allegiance
that might be in your background. Children--both long-term Americans and
immigrants--often buy into this belief system. At the same time, however, there
is a strong feeling among many immigrant families that it is important to
preserve ties with the old country and to maintain their heritage language.
It is usually the goal of the parents for their children to learn English
fluently and adapt to their host country but not forget their heritage language.
To the parents' disappointment (and ultimately to the regret of the child), this
goal is only rarely fully achieved. It is commonplace for fluency in the first
language to decline as English improves, so that by the end of the high school
years, children are at best semi-speakers of their heritage language.
This digest draws on a set of linguistic autobiographies written by
Asian-American college students in this author's classes at the University of
California at Berkeley over the last several years, and examines the pattern of
language shift that takes place in the young first- and second-generation
student and why this shift takes place. It also looks at the efforts families
make to keep their heritage language strong (and why those efforts often do not
work) and at those rare people who have succeeded in becoming bilingual, and
what happened to make it possible.
The most frequent experience reported by
the students in their linguistic autobiographies is that they knew little or no
English when they started school in the United States. Many experienced "language shock." As one student reported, "I never expected so much
difficulties in assimilating into a brand new culture with a brand new
language." None of these students had ever been in a bilingual education
program, which suggests that despite all the controversy about bilingual
education, true bilingual education programs are rare, at least for Asian
Americans. For some students, however, English as a second language (ESL)
classes were available in school.
The autobiographies revealed a hodgepodge of approaches to teaching English.
Many schools were inadequately prepared for students who needed to learn
English, and some bizarre solutions were offered at times: "The only [classes]
offered to non-English speakers were ESL for Spanish speakers and Sign Language
for the deaf. Since I couldn't be put in the ESL classes, I was taught sign
language. That was the only way I knew how to communicate with all the white
people who talked so differently than myself. Gradually I began to learn English
from my classmates." The other main sources from which students reported
learning English were television and friends, but many also reported that family
played a significant role.
"Television." One student wrote, "Until the age of about four, I spoke
entirely in Korean with my parents. Shortly thereafter, I rapidly began to learn
English. Television shows like "Sesame Street" and "Mister Roger's Neighborhood"
greatly contributed to my learning process. The English sounds that had once
been so foreign before soon became my own."
"Friends." Friends may play the biggest role of all in helping children learn
English. Many students reported consciously cultivating friends who did not
speak their language in order to learn English better. "I avoided speaking
Korean as much as I could. I started hanging out with people to whom I could
"Family." While some families either cannot or choose not to use English at
home, others (as will be shown later) play an active role in their children's
acquisition of English. Older siblings are especially helpful in this regard.
One student wrote, "I have two older sisters who started school before me, and
my oldest sister still has memories of first starting school and not knowing the
language. By the time I started school, it is possible that I had already
learned to speak English from my sisters who had learned it in school, because I
can't remember being teased for not speaking English when I started preschool.
Therefore, I am certain I picked up English before I started formal schooling
thanks to the precedent of my two older sisters."
FIRST LANGUAGE ATTRITION
Although some students are still
struggling to perfect their English in college, most of their worst difficulties
with the language are behind them. They certainly know English well enough to
have been admitted to the University of California at Berkeley. At this point,
most of them are dominant in English, and they find that their heritage language
has suffered. One student reported, "I noticed that I began to think more and
more in English. Now, the only thing that is still Chinese in my mind is the
multiplication table. I wish I had kept up with my reading skills in Chinese. It
felt as though my Chinese heritage was fading away with my Chinese literacy." First language attrition is discussed in almost everyone's autobiographies. The
feelings of reminiscence that develop about the heritage language are discussed
in Wong Fillmore (1991), which looks at the age at which attrition in the
heritage language begins.
First language attrition may manifest itself in different ways. Many
children, for example, have only a passive knowledge of their heritage language.
They may reach a point where they understand the home language in a basic way
but cannot speak as well as they understand. Others may learn to speak their
heritage language fluently but are unable to read and write it.
In other cases, children--and sometimes their parents--speak a mixture of
their native language and English. Mixed Korean and English is often called
"Konglish," or "Korenglish" as one student prefers to call it--spinoffs on the
first word in this genre, "Spanglish." Sometimes, this mixed language actually
becomes the main language used at home. "My family and I still speak more
English than Hindi at home. We have even developed a sort of Hinglish, which
often consists of a mixture of the two languages." In the majority of cases,
this is involuntary code mixing--done by people who command one language better
than the other--and not the stylistic switching done by balanced bilinguals.
Because most of the students who wrote in these autobiographies are only
semi-speakers of their heritage language, many report language mixing as the
best they can do with their heritage language. This involuntary code-switching
is often used with their Asian-language-dominant parents.
Heritage language attrition can create many problems for children who find
themselves frustrated, unable to communicate effectively with relatives,
alienated from peers in the old country, and humiliated in front of visitors to
the home. One of the biggest difficulties that comes with first language
attrition is its impact on communication in the family. The parents may not know
English well enough (or at all) to communicate on an intimate level with the
child, and the child may not have a good enough grasp of the heritage language
to bridge this communication gap. According to one student,
Even with the Chinese I speak, I am limited to the normal yet shallow
"everyday" conversations I have with my parents and do not have enough of a
vocabulary to have meaningful talks with them. Such was the case just the other
night when they asked me what my major at Berkeley was but I did not know the
phrase for "Biology," much less, "Molecular and Cellular Biology." The best I
could manage was "science" in Chinese and explained the rest in English; I could
not communicate to them why I selected this major, what I was going to do with
it, and so forth--we ended the discussion by changing the subject.
For many students, parental insistence on retaining the language and values
of the old country became the source of intergenerational conflict. "Between my
parents and siblings and myself, there has been constant tension--a pressure
that is always existent, though perhaps not visible or audibly--for my younger
sister, younger brother and me to use Korean among ourselves and with our
parents at least when we are in the house. Yet, we neglect it and use the more
comfortable English--until we hear another lecture."
FACTORS RELATING TO FIRST LANGUAGE RETENTION AND ATTRITION
What creates this language shift against the will of the family and,often, to
the ultimate regret of the child? This section looks at thefactors that tip the
balance one way or another toward attrition orretention of the heritage
Because use of the heritage language at home is vital to helping children
retain it, many parents are faced with the dilemma about whether they should
speak English at home. In homes where parents speak little or no English, there
is no choice but to use the heritage language. However, what happens in cases
where parents have achieved some level of proficiency in English? Should they
speed their children's English acquisition by speaking it with them, or would
that hurt their children's chances of retaining the heritage language? It is
clear that children who don't know English suffer emotionally and educationally,
at least for the first year or so, and schools often strongly encourage parents
to use English at home. Yet, although parents who decide to use English at home
may find that their children learn English faster, the student autobiographies
reveal that at the same time, knowledge of the heritage language never develops
or deteriorates rapidly once English is introduced in the home. All of the
students who reported that they retained fluency or near-fluency in their native
tongue came from homes where the heritage language was spoken by matter of
policy. "Chinese was still the dominant language in our household; English was a
forbidden taboo. My parents had wanted to ensure the fact that I would never
forget my language and culture."
Many students reported that although their families chose to use the heritage
language at home, they found that their children were losing fluency. One
maintenance strategy reported by several students was use of the "one parent,
one language" approach in their homes. One student wrote, "Gujarati was the
first language I learned and spoke fluently until the age of five. At home, my
mother would speak to me in Gujarati, and my father would speak to me in
English." This is a fairly common approach for families trying to raise
bilingual children; it can be a good compromise for families who want their
children to maintain their heritage language but at the same time don't want
them to arrive at school not knowing English. In one study that looked at the
one parent, one language approach, Dopke (1992) found that those families whose
children did succeed in maintaining fluent bilingualism throughout the period of
the study differed from the others in two key ways: (1) the parents were
consistent about the approach and most importantly did not let the children
respond to them in the inappropriate language; (2) the children had people
besides their parents to talk to in the heritage language. Other relatives or
neighbors, or social or religious groups that use the heritage language provide
necessary language support that offers both further exposure and motivation to
the child. (For more information on the one parent, one language approach, see
A factor that may be even more important in language attrition than any of
the above is language rejection by the children themselves. The children are
subjected to tough assimilative pressures at school, mainly from their
classmates. They may be made to feel different, and their language or accent may
be ridiculed. The children begin to develop a sense of shame about their
language and culture and accordingly make every attempt to suppress it.
In a kind of reverse shame, language rejection may also occur or be
intensified as a result of discouragement over one's lack of knowledge of the
heritage language; non-fluent children try not to speak the language at all for
fear of being criticized or laughed at by those who speak it better. For a
smaller number of students, language rejection is less emotional and more
pragmatic. Students who have lived in America most or all of their lives often
simply see no use in using their heritage language.
EFFORTS AT LANGUAGE MAINTENANCE
When school support for
bilingual development is lacking, maintenance and development of the heritage
language are up to the family, and success is rare. All in all, it appears that
heritage language retention is successful only if the language is used in
multiple contexts, which not only allows for sufficient input for continued
language development but also helps the child realize the usefulness of the
language and provides motivation. When parents see their children losing their
heritage language, they often make strong efforts to remedy the situation. The
two most common means of trying to stem this loss are increased insistence on
use of the heritage language at home and enrolling children in a heritage
language school. These schools teach literacy and oral skills in the heritage
language as well as values and culture. Children go to these schools after
regular school or on Saturdays. For several reasons, however, students write
almost unanimously that as children they disliked the Saturday schools and felt
they did not benefit much from them.
Many students wrote in their autobiographies that heritage language
television was helpful in maintaining or improving their home language. One
student wrote, "Television again came to the rescue. It was the medium that led
me to become more fluent and confident with Mandarin since most Chinese
television shows on TV were spoken in Mandarin."
Having peers with whom one can speak the language is an important factor in
heritage language maintenance. Students who grew up in an ethnic enclave with
neighbors who spoke their language were much more successful at retaining their
heritage language. "Coming from an immigrant family, Cantonese was the first
language I learned. My learning was reinforced since I lived in San Francisco's
Chinatown and attended a bilingual day care center." Some students belonged to
churches or clubs that were primarily ethnically defined. These organizations
provided an important social motive for keeping the heritage language strong and
more exposure to and practice with the language.
There may be nothing better for family retention of the heritage language
than making return trips to the homeland. For most immigrants, this is probably
impossible, due to economic considerations or political problems in the
homeland. However, some families are wealthy enough to make occasional or even
regular visits to the old country. Families able to retain these close ties are
those in which bilingualism is most likely to thrive. A visit to the homeland
may give many Asian-American children who might otherwise abandon their heritage
language new motivation to learn.
The University of California,
Berkeley, has a richly diverse student body. Campus clubs and nearby church
groups allow students to form bonds with people of a similar background. Many of
the students in this study found groups of friends of similar ethnic identity
and language background, which awakened a new desire to improve their heritage
language skills. Also, for the first time, most of them were at a school where
their languages were actually taught as academic subjects; it was their first
opportunity to take classes in their heritage language.
Many Asian-American students undergo an intense and poignant effort to
reconcile the conflicting forces in their lives and find a comfortable sense of
identity. Some who have spent their lives becoming as Americanized as possible
still feel that racial attitudes in the United States keep them from
assimilating completely. The college years are often a time when students begin
to look at their heritage identity positively and make efforts to reclaim it.
Some strongly embrace their American identity but argue that knowing other
languages is not un-American. Students who are still struggling with English
most often care more about improving their English skills than maintaining their
heritage language. But many who have lost or never attained fluency feel
incomplete. Those who are satisfied with their language skills in both languages
tend to have a more positive self-image.
THOUGHTS FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS
While there is a great deal
of variation in heritage language fluency among the students studied here and
many different views about identity, almost all of the students agree that they
want their children to know their heritage language if at all possible. "I'm
scared to lose a part of who I am. But more importantly, I realize that I have
the awesome responsibility of one day passing on a precious language, that
really is more than just a language, to my own children."
The changes in language attitudes that these
students report are in keeping with Tse (1998), who discusses stages of ethnic
identity formation: (1) unawareness; (2) ethnic ambivalence/evasion; (3) ethnic
emergence; and (4) ethnic identity incorporation. Most of the people writing
these autobiographies are in stage 3 or 4, but the language journey for these
college students is far from complete. Most will probably continue to go through
periods when their heritage language is more important to them and others when
it is less important. Some will go on to careers where their contacts with the
homeland are enhanced or where their heritage language plays a role, others will
not. Some will marry people of the same language background, others will not.
While almost all of the students write that they hope to help their own children
grow up bilingual, we know from past experience that second- and
third-generation Americans are increasingly likely to know very little of their
heritage language. Either the intergenerational struggle so clear in these
autobiographies is likely to be repeated between these students and their
children, or the families will surrender to English.
Dopke, S. (1992). "One parent, one language: An
interactional approach." Philadelphia: John Benjamin's.
Tse, L. (1998). Ethnic identity formation and itsimplications for heritage
language development. In S.D. Krashen, L. Tse, & J. McQuillan, "Heritage
language development" (pp. 15-30). Culver City, CA: Language Education
Wong Fillmore, L. (1991). When learning a second language means losing the
first. "Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6," 323-346.