Cultural Identity and Heritage Languages

Deanne S Puloka




        This paper looks at the intersection of heritage languages and the cultural identity of first and second generation immigrants in the United States of America.  It examines the reflections of two first generation immigrants and two second generation immigrants on their integration of US culture and that of their native country.  The interviewees are all from different cultural heritages and backgrounds.  One is multilingual and the remaining three are monolingual.  The paper explores how these interviewees identify themselves and the effect their linguistic and identification journeys could have on their offspring and the next generation.  The paper argues that without fluency in both native and host countries' languages a stable bicultural identity cannot be reached. 


1.      Introduction

In the year 2000, over 13 million foreign born immigrants called the United States their home away from home.  This is a significant increase from four million foreign born immigrants in the 1970's (U.S. Bureau of the Census).  A little over a decade ago in 1997, the U.S. Bureau of the Census determined that immigrant children and the U.S. born children of immigrants are the fastest growing segment in the country's total population of children under the age of 18 (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001, p. 19).  Steps should be taken to understand these children as they not only are the 'leaders of tomorrow,' but they are largely seen as the problems of U.S. society today.

The word immigrant seems synonymous with problems; however, most of the problems of immigration addressed by news media and political leaders are from a native's point of view.  According to the native, there is the problem of the illegal immigrant, the refugee immigrant, the immigrant who takes away jobs from natives, and the immigrant who came to live off the welfare system.  Immigrants from all parts of the world arrive in the United States with varying degrees of education, job skills, and command of the English language (Profile of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States, 2000, p. 34).  Yet most would agree that they are not given the chance to prove themselves.  The picture painted of immigrants is one that smacks of unfortunate hypocrisy, as the only difference between 'native' Americans and the immigrants of the new millennia is the era in which their relatives arrived in the United States. 

Before the term multiculturalism had even been coined, academics were aware of the unique problems the immigrants themselves faced (Bennet, 2005, p. 34).  Professor M.L. Hansen, one of the first scholars to address the multicultural identity conflict in the 1930's, said of our immigrant problem, 'The problem [of the second generation immigrant] was solved by escape he wanted to forget everything: the foreign language, the religion and the family customs' (1938, p. 7).  According to Hansen, while the first generation immigrant struggles to adjust, the second generation fights to forget.  The richness of cultural heritage is often renewed by the third generation whose curiosity of his or her ancestry is what Hansen calls 'the principle of third generation interest: what the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember.' (p. 9) While this paper does not address the problems of the third generation, it strives to pinpoint specific ways in which first generation and second generation immigrants can reach a stable multicultural identity and thus pass this on to their own children.  This proposes that inorder to  cultivate a stable multicultural identity one must be fluent in both heritage and host languages.

The education system of the United States has come a long way in helping immigrants in their linguistic journey.  English as a Second Language is available for both school age children and adults; however, it is interesting to note that even in a country made up of immigrants there is no set federal budget for English language learners.  It varies from state to state.   Unlike its comparable allies, Canada and Australia, who have entire ministries devoted to the heritage and cultures of immigrants, the U.S. simply directs its mass of immigrants to the Department of Homeland Security.  The department is best known for deportation services and investigation of terror suspects and can hardly be considered a hearty welcoming party.  Without the necessary infrastructure to educate natives and immigrants on the process of acculturation, many newcomers feel the animosity toward immigrants.  In efforts to blend in, immigrants feel the immediate push to learn English and many decide to no longer use their native tongue.    

While the immigrant struggles with the new syntax and pronunciations there is a deeper and more serious problem that occurs once the English language has been internalized by the immigrant.  It is the problem of cultural identity.

Language is such an integral part of being human, separating us from our ancestors, the apes.  Language is much more than a means of communication.  It is part of an initiation into a group, whether it is a community of scholars or an entire nation.  Immigrants who arrive in a foreign country face a serious problem.  Their native tongue no longer has the prestige that it once enjoyed.  While these languages are part of who the immigrants are, the language is also a part of their past, which they have chosen to leave behind.  For many immigrants, the question becomes whether or not they should have left their mother tongue in their motherland.  The immigrant is not asked to integrate the English language into his or her life but is demanded to assimilate immediately.  The United States is a country made up of immigrants throughout the ages, one of the few bonds that U.S. American citizens can share is the English language. This is the linking language.  The national motto remains E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One) but few seem to know what 'one' refers to anymore and if the concept of one-ness should ever have been recommended.

The United States of America currently does not have official policies to aid multiculturalism or to keep the heritage culture present within the immigrant family.  The attitude of the U.S government does not help alleviate the confusion of acculturation by immigrants and their children.  These second generation immigrants are raised in an environment where they will constantly be torn between the heritage and host culture of what they learn in the home and at school (Stroink et al, 2009, p. 45).  Because language has such a strong impact on the development of self during childhood, second generation children may be forced into a schizophrenic-like existence if they do not adapt to the challenge of becoming multilingual (Portes, Rumbaut, 2001, p. 113).  Unfortunately, due to the negative attitude U.S. Americans have towards multilingualism, many immigrant parents choose not to teach their child their heritage language or culture.  As they grow up, these second generation immigrants lose their ability to relate to their family and heritage culture.  The second generation immigrant does not have the same level of gratitude his or her parents have for living in a more economically developed country.  Their assimilation into the U.S. American culture turns to resentment towards the host country because they realize that their parents and communities often occupy the lowest standard of living within the country (Portes, Rumbaut, 2001, p. 9).

As a result a third culture is formed in which second generation immigrants attempt to understand the personal conflict they are facing.  While the creation of a third culture can have positive uses, such as in marriage, it also can be detrimental to the host and heritage cultures and the society in which they develop.  Latino gangs often identify as chicano or Mexican-American.  Violent gang culture exhibited by chicanos are the negative consequences of a third culture. Second generation immigrants who are monolingual are often pulled into downward assimilation when trapped between heritage and host cultures.  Downward assimilation occurs when the learning of new cultural patterns and entry into the American society leads to downward mobility such as high involvement in organized crime, increased teenage pregnancy, and disappearance of heritage discipline (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001, p. 59-60).

2.      Language and identity

The potential for conflict between the heritage and the U.S American identities among first and second generation immigrants in Illinois is explored within this paper.  It is my hypothesis that immigrants who are able to communicate effectively in both heritage and host communities can build a stable multicultural identity.  Professor Teresa Lafromboise from Stanford University who is well known in the intercultural research field has outlined six necessary factors for building a 'bicultural competence'.  They are: '(a) possess a strong personal identity, (b) have knowledge of and facility with the beliefs and values of the culture, (c) display sensitivity to the affective processes of the culture, (d) communicate clearly in the language of the given cultural group, (e) perform socially sanctioned behavior, (f) maintain active social relations within the cultural group, and (g) negotiate the institutional structures of that culture' (1993, p. 396). In my personal experience with navigating a bicultural identity I am forced to respectfully disagree with LaFromboise.  While all six are important there is but one necessary factor which determines whether a true bicultural identity can be reached and that is the ability to communicate effectively within both cultures.  Without the ability to communicate effectively, obtaining the remaining five will be next to impossible.

The linguistic relativity principle, better known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is the idea that an individual's experience is limited to the vocabulary in which he/she can explain the experience.  The hypothesis states that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of the limitations of their language (Lucy, 1997, p. 294).  The Japanese and British cultures differ because of the styles used in their languages.  The Japanese language is very accommodating and holds many characteristics to 'save face.'.  It is seen as an indirect 'status-oriented language' (Fitzgerald, 1993, p. 62). This language style is well suited to the Japanese as the culture is collectivist minded.  The English language has been called a direct 'person-oriented language' in which the I-self carries more significance than the group (Gudykunst & Ting-Toomy, 1988, p. 109).  This language style is well suited to the British who are known to be an individualistic society.  It is easy to imagine how difficult it would be for one to use a direct style language such as English to express Japanese ideals.  However, this is the difficulty that the second-generation immigrant must face if he or she is unable to achieve fluency in both heritage and host languages.

The problem of the relationship between language and culture is so pervading and ubiquitous that an attempt to separate the two is like attempting to separate the Uroborus' head from its tail.  For those who would argue that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis only proves that one's vocabulary limits the sharing of such an experience a question can be put to them: apart from communication how can experience be passed on?  After all, the very definition of culture is 'communicable knowledge for human coping in a particular environment that is passed on for the benefit of subsequent generations (Harris & Moran, 1989, p. 107)

3.      Four case stories

This section of the paper explores the linguistic trajectories of four ethnic minority first and second generation immigrants who live in Southern Illinois.  All interviewees are currently working towards or have received a Bachelors degree from a four year institution.  In order to protect their privacy, pseudonyms have been provided for the four individuals.

Anna's story

Anna Bilj was born in Austria in the late 1940s to an Austrian mother and Ukrainian father. After World War II the family used Catholic Social Services to look for job opportunities overseas.  Eventually her father was sponsored by a farmer in Belleville, Illinois, and the family moved to the United States when Anna was only 10 months old.  Her first language is German but now English is the only language she speaks. 

'Up until I was 5 we spoke German.  I'm sure I learned [English] very quickly.  I don't remember very much about kindergarten but I do remember thinking that all the other kids knew a whole lot more than me- probably because they could understand what the teacher wanted!  After we got to school, the nuns told my parents to stop speaking German completely.  The nuns said it would be easier for us children to learn English.  So my parents just stopped talking.'

Anna has retained the ability to understand the German language.  While no complementary schools existed at the time she did have the advantage over her older brother who no longer understands any of his native language.  German was offered at her grade school for a few months by a German nun.  'I think it really helped to bring the language forward in my mind so I could use it for a little bit.' When Anna was 19 she visited Austria for the first time. As the child of immigrants she had never had the opportunity to interact with aunts and uncles.  The overwhelming welcome from her relatives transcended the language barrier.

Anna considers herself an American since she was only a baby when her family lived in Austria. 'I do feel very strong ties to Austria though, mainly because my mother was always talking about Austria.  I grew up with a mother who was always homesick and crying.  I always had a burning desire to go.  I've heard of neighborhoods that are all Italian or all German in larger cities.  At one point I thought that if I grew up in an area like that I would have felt more comfortable and at home.  But then maybe I wouldn't have had the drive to visit my mother's country.'

Anna says that growing up as the child of immigrants had its advantages and disadvantages.  While she doesn't remember ever translating for her parents she does remember filling out forms and writing letters.  'We took on a lot of roles that other kids never had.  But we also had it easy.  I grew up in the turbulent 1960s- everything was changing.  But my parents didn't know how America was supposed to be or that cultural norms were being turned upside down!  So I wore the mini skirts and nothing happened but my friends' parents were having heart attacks saying 'don't do that!' My parents never even came close to assimilation.  There's no book that you can read that shows you how to be American.'

Anna is now a mother of four and a grandmother of four.  She married an American man with his own German heritage and currently is a computer science teacher at the local high school.  Few people know that she was not born in the U.S. and she welcomes the opportunity to discuss her experiences with the Austrian and American cultures.  However, she has never expected her children to have the same feeling she has for Austria.  While she has taken each of her children to Austria once she said the reason for this was not to learn about the country but to provide her children with the chance to get to know their relatives over there.  'I think for them it's enough knowing that oma and opa are from there.'

Catherine's story

Catherine is the only child of a Japanese immigrant mother and an American father.  She defines herself as a Japanese-American.  She is semi-fluent in Japanese and can read and write in the simple Japanese alphabet, Hiragana.  Her multicultural background has inspired her to pursue a minor in Ethnic studies.

'I identify as Japanese-American because my mother's side has a heavy influence on my life. I was raised in a Japanese style home. It had a lot to do with honor and respecting authority.  I can't say that Americans don't teach their children that but not to the extent to which I was taught. Bs were not good enough.  I was raised the way my mother grew up so she forced me to be an A student.'

Because her mother spoke very little English while Catherine was growing up, an American woman was hired to teach Catherine how to read and write in English. Due to her mother's frequent business trips away from home, Catherine cannot recall specific instances where her mother communicated with her in Japanese.  'At home we speak a mixture of English and Japanese.  I can understand more of what others say.  I can't articulate intelligent ideas.  Usually when I want someone to stop doing something I use Japanese, probably because mom used more Japanese commands.'  For a short time Catherine and her mother lived in Japan with her grandparents.  Upon returning to the U.S. Catherine recalls how harsh she found the English language.  'I turned on the television and I couldn't understand.  The Americans sounded so crude and crass.  It sounded so ugly.  The Japanese language is full of respect and reverence for the fellow human being.  I just had to turn off the TV.  It took me a while to get used to American language again.  It was very shocking.'

Apart from those two years in her adolescence Catherine has lived in the Midwest her entire life.  She has struggled daily with an inner turmoil that she calls a cultural identity crisis.  'I am here [in the U.S] but Caucasians do not accept me as American so I'm Asian, so it's like I'm not sure where I fit in.  It's like I have the best of both worlds- two cultural perspectives- but I'm kind of walking the fence.  When I live here I apply a lot of Japanese mentality and in Japan I'm like 'well that's not the way we do it in America.'

Catherine says that few people have ever asked her what cultural identity she would like to use.  Instead, it is usually assigned to her.  In the U.S., she is seen as Asian and most cannot tell that she has one Caucasian parent.  'But you can't fool Japanese.  I was always called Amerika jin (American person).'

Catherine has thought a lot about the problems her own potential children might face growing up biracial . 'I want them to recognize all their ethnic backgrounds that they might have.  My father never instilled any cultural influence in me because he thought living by in America ; that I'd just pick it up.  If you're half you're kind of screwed already- I really don't see myself marrying a Japanese person so they [the children] are just going to have to put up with whatever else there is.  If they're not proud of their Japanese heritage they can pick something to be proud of.'

Prasanna's story

Prasanna was born in Kathmandu, Nepal.  He immigrated to the United States in 2005 to join the U.S. Air force.  In order to gain necessary clearance to join the Air Force he renounced his Nepalese citizenship in 2006.  Upon leaving the U.S. Air Force Prasanna was a senior airman and engineering technician.  He is currently in his third year in college studying computer science.  His first language is Nepali but English has become his primary language since moving to the U.S.  When possible, he prefers to speak a hybrid mix of Nepali and English.

'I solidly identify myself as both American and Nepalese.  I don't want to disconnect from either.  Even though I no longer have Nepalese citizenship that is still my home.  I also served in the U.S military and I'm proud of that, too.'

His experience learning English was less of a struggle compared with other interviewees because it was a spread out process that began in kindergarten.  'We started learning British English in Kindergarten. A is for apple, B is for boy.  I still struggle with certain lingo and it is sometimes hard to catch American jokes.  Most talk about television and baseball.  If I had the time I could watch, but I don't so it is difficult to converse with Americans.'

Despite his incomplete competence in the English language Prasanna says that it has become easier to communicate in English than it is for him to communicate in Nepali. 'If I speak in Nepali I might mix English in.  I just can't take on a couple of the harder words.  Except for normal conversation words in Nepali I can't think of complicated words in Nepali/'/I just revert to English even though that isn't perfect either.'

Prasanna has not returned to Nepal since his departure in 2005.  When asked about raising a family he says it would be natural to raise a family in the United States because this is his home now. 'Raising a family here would be a viable choice.  I would let my children identify as American and Nepalese at the same time because Nepalese have a proud heritage.  We should never forget where we come from.  We have a Nepalese group in Saint Louis and a couple of times a year we have gatherings.  I think just by interacting and observing Nepalese from that group would be a good enough exposure for my children.'  He went on to say that he had researched Nepali language opportunities online and he believes that online classes coupled with speaking Nepali in the home would hopefully allow his future children to become multilingual.

David's story


David was born in the United Sates to an Israeli father and a Polish-American mother.  He is a second generation immigrant. In efforts to have him learn more about his father's heritage his parents sent him to a Jewish parochial school which he attended throughout childhood and adolescence.  Classes were taught in both Hebrew and English. 'My father is a fluent native Hebrew speaker, but never used it at home.  It always frustrated me that I was expected to learn a foreign language with no application outside of school.' 

Unlike others who grew up wishing they could have gone to a complementary school, David grew up resenting the Jewish day school.  'Less than half of the day was devoted to English and the general studies.  Hebrew was necessary in all of the religious classes.  However, reading religious texts is very different from reading modern Hebrew, and less than an hour per day was spent teaching the Hebrew language.  With no use outside of school, it is hard to learn a language.  Up to grade six, I did not resent it that much.  After that I truly hated school.  As adults in Jewish culture, genders were taught separately, and the distinct gender roles were made apparent.  As I could form my own opinions, I came to disagree with, and eventually hate, so much about Judaism'               
          David will soon complete his first year at college where he is wary to tell friends of his cultural background.  'I do not identify with any national culture.  I like several Israeli and Jewish foods, but I do not appreciate much more than that.  In general, I have a hard time identifying with groups I do not choose.  What I mean is, the fact that my parents follow culture and traditions does not mean I should follow along by default.  Involvement in childhood is fine, but as I grew and formed my own opinions, I saw no reason to practice their customs.'

David's experience with the Hebrew complementary school was very negative.  Thrown into a culture he did not choose nor practiced at home has made him wary of having his own children.  David says,

'I swear by my life that I will never reproduce.  I am a member of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT).  If I could influence children, I would raise them to know about VHEMT, but I would not raise them to be members.  Once they know about it, they can decide for themselves whether or not they want to join'.

4.      Discussion

All interviewees struggle with maintaining a bicultural identity; however, it is clear from the interviews that there is a strong sense of pride when the interviewees were given the chance to talk about their multicultural lives and experiences with different languages.  In the analysis of their statements it is evident that Prasanna struggles the least with defining himself and his future.  This is because Prasanna can communicate effectively within both the U.S American culture and the Nepalese culture.  While he still struggles with American vernacular he does not feel his heritage and host cultures clash significantly.  Other interviewees exhibited a great deal of confusion over how to identity themselves. 

A limitation of the present study is the oversight to include a control group.  Ideally, the control group would have consisted of a non-mixed, monolingual, non-immigrant who is only fluent in his/her own native language.  In using a control group it could have been shown that only immigrants experience cultural identity crisis.

Lessons can be learned from Canada, which has an official policy of multiculturalism (Government of Canada, Ministry of Heritage, 2004).  This policy formally recognizes that identifying with a heritage culture and practicing its customs and language should not present a barrier to identifying oneself as a Canadian.  The Canadian government's implementation of this policy remains somewhat vague and immigrants in Canada still encounter forms of discrimination (Stroink et al, 2009, p. 45).  Nevertheless, such a policy is more likely to make immigrants feel at ease and welcome than no formal recognition at all.  More immigrant parents need to be assured that it is acceptable to celebrate both cultures and languages in the home.  Even though the U.S. is a major world power in terms of economy and standard of living, the monolinguist mindset that the American government perpetuates will prove detrimental to later generations when forced to communicate and work interdependently with non-English speaking countries.  Bilingualism should not be feared or seen as something of which to be ashamed. While past studies claimed that bilingualism was actually a reason for 'retardation' of immigrant children, it has been evident since Peal and Lambert's 1962 landmark study on bilingualism that bilingual students actually outperformed their monolingual counterparts in academic testing.  These counterparts were similar in age, sex, and economic status (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001, p. 114). 

Problems that arise with immigration will not go away.  This particualr problem of cultural identity will not disappear with the second generation because, as Hansen pointed out earlier, it will return with the third generation.  Immigrants who hope to achieve a genuine sense of belonging to their new host country should not disavow their heritage identities.  If they do, it is a grave disservice to themselves, their children, and the entire nation.  In order to achieve a stable multicultural identity, immigrants should begin the process of acculturation with the attitude that the learning of a new culture does not cancel out or replace the old.  Retaining knowledge of the heritage language does not serve to retard children, but it actually helps build a strong sense of identity and may put bilingual children ahead of monolingual classmates.  However, it is important that immigrants be aware of David's story.  Well meaning parents and teachers who do not connect what is taught at a complementary school with behavior in the home and vice versa can only expect immigrant children to grow to resent one or both clashing cultures.  There may come a time when the U.S. government realizes what is happening in immigrant homes and the impact it has on the immigrant psyche.  Maybe then a policy will be put into place to promote multiculturalism.  But we should not wait that long.  The immigrant child is growing up fast.



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