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Michelle Salemi/ MEDILL

Michelle Kim, whose first language is Korean, learned English while attending preschool in America.

First generation, second language: Children of immigrants can struggle with culture

by Michelle Salemi
April 11, 2012

Michelle Kim is 22 and was born in Chicago. She spoke Korean before English. Her parents had her shortly after immigrating to the United States from Korea.

“It was my parent’s first language,” Kim said. “It was a great way for us to communicate, for them to teach me their culture and for me to grow up in that kind of atmosphere.”

Communication plays an important role in the passing of culture between immigrant parents and their first generation American children. These children learn English in different ways, while discovering their respective culture.

Kim’s situation represents one example of language knowledge in immigrant families.
Barbara Speicher, a multicultural and intercultural specialist at DePaul University, said it is important to remember approaches to language are not only different with ethnicities, but also from family to family.

“There is no one answer because there is incredible diversity across experiences,” Speicher said. “For some parents, whether they speak English and want to teach their children, depends on any number of factors, from how old they are, how well educated they are, and what their circumstances are.”

Speicher, an associate professor, said some immigrant families will solely speak their native language; others see the importance in introducing them right away to English.

“Some parents will say, ‘We’re here, let’s forget about everything from the past,’ and only speak English to their kids because they are concerned their kids might not learn English if they don’t use it at home,” Speicher said.

Dylan Mejias, 22, a Chicago native whose father was born in Puerto Rico, said culture, music and food was a part of his experience, but not the language.

“I spoke English but I understand everything in Spanish when someone in my family talks to me,” Mejias said. “I just can’t really speak it because I was ever forced to.”

Kim, on the other hand, learned English all on her own, as she went through the American school system.

“I remember being sent to preschool and I didn’t know any English, and that’s where I picked it up,” Kim said. “I became fluent there and I would say that when I entered kindergarten, I was on par with the other kids.”

Speicher said as children learn English through their experiences in America, they become part of the broader society. Sometimes, they end up being translators for the family; sometimes, it creates a distance.

Kim said she didn’t always see eye-to-eye with her parents. She said they don’t speak English very well, which posed a barrier as she was growing up.

“There are so many things that they just didn’t understand,” Kim said. “They didn’t want to understand and so, in a lot of ways, they were very closed-minded.”

For Mejias, communication across generations holds an important place in his family, keeping them in touch and helping him maintain his native culture.

“I try to keep in touch with them very frequently,” Mejias said. “It’s important for me to understand where I came from.”

Even though Kim still faces some difficulties in communicating with her family, she knows they want the best for her.

“I feel like my parents’ mentality was, ‘Do well in school and life,’ because in the end, they want me to be successful, and that happens to be the American way.”