It would be easy to explain immigrants’ experiences of integrating into the United States using a one-size-fits-all model. Would it simplify our discussions? Would it streamline legislation? Maybe. But in addition, it would also be foolish. The truth is that acculturation (the changes a person goes through when they interact with a culture different from their own) is multidimensional and varies greatly1. Acculturation of immigrants differ based on the individual, their access to quality education, their authorization status, their generation, and resiliency, among other things2 3 4 5. In this post, I hope to explore and unwrap the complex and non-standardized process of acculturation.
One dimension of acculturation that comes up often is learning the language of your new country. The rhetoric of ‘immigrants should speak American’ is alive and well in contemporary times. People who speak different languages are harassed in public spaces and accused of assisting in the demise of the English language and American culture (which actually don’t go hand in hand, as the U.S. does not have an official language). Politicians (on either side of the aisle) don’t hesitate to emphasize the need for immigrants to learn English. Whether people are supporting or demonizing immigrants, there seems to be a link between learning English and assimilating in the ‘right’ way.
This sentiment is not only enacted by native-born Americas. In fact, almost all immigrant students in one study indicated that learning English was extremely important to assimilating into the United States3. In addition to acknowledging that learning English was important, they also viewed the process of learning it favorably3. If this is true, then why do some Americans feel the need to inform immigrants to speak English? An unfortunate truth is that having a positive attitude towards learning a new language doesn’t mean the process will be easier3. What do help are effective language-education programs. Just like acculturation in general, bilingualism is not a simple and objective concept. In that same study, language acquisition programs were examined and researchers concluded that dual immersion programs were best for learning English3. So, when bias-motivated racist individuals want to accost and blame individual immigrants for not speaking ‘American’, they may need to turn their scrutiny around at the educational aid the United States school system offers to immigrant youth or the social services or community programming offered to adults. English may lead to easier acculturation, but good programming leads to better acquisition of English.
Documentation status and barriers.
Another factor that feeds this theme that acculturation is a multidimensional and complicated process is authorization status. For unauthorized immigrants, certain routes to acculturation, and milestones towards American adulthood, are inaccessible. Unauthorized immigrants, whose numbers have significantly increased over the past decade, do not all have the same experience and families may have members with different statuses2. When it comes to engaging in American culture and society, lack of authorization prevents certain activities, like voting, driving, going to college, and getting a job2. Additionally, the fear of deportation of oneself of one’s family is present2. The interaction of documentation status and various social and cultural systems theoretically leads to negative developmental outcomes2. So, while native-born Americans push the importance of assimilation, they are ignoring the barriers of institutional, economic, and cultural contexts that exist for almost one-fourth of all immigrants2. Programs like DACA may serve as a route out from this limbo that unauthorized youth are stuck in. Even if people support unauthorized immigrants being brought out from the shadows and taking their place in line for citizenship, it’s not always that easy.
Generational gaps and resiliency.
One of the last factors I will discuss regarding the intricate and complex process of acculturation is something researchers call the immigrant paradox. The paradox is that second-generation immigrants (children of first-generation immigrants that came to the United States) have worse developmental outcomes and have less success than their parents4 5. To complicate this more, this may be due to the process of acculturation itself5. One proposed theory is that while first-generation immigrants self-select and have the drive to succeed in a new country as immigrants, their children are not guaranteed to have that same success5. They did not choose to be immigrants. Despite the risk factors, a model of resiliency is possibly more important4. While people may continue to spew misinformed or hateful rhetoric about immigrants and their influence and integration to the United States, one thing that’s for sure is that immigrants are resilient and should be studied in a model that reflects this.
Acculturation is complicated, non-linear, and subjective. Whether it is learning a language, reaching educational and cultural milestones, or achieving success in a new country and culture, acculturation is not a one-size-fits-all concept. And it certainly won’t be one any time soon.
- Schwartz, S. J., Unger, J. B., Zamboanga, B. L., & Szapocznik, J. (2010). Rethinking the concept of acculturation: Implications for theory and research. American Psychologist, 65(4), 237–251. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019330
- Suárez-Orozco, C., Yoshikawa, H., Teranishi, R. T., & Suárez-Orozco, M. M. (2011). Growing up in the shadows: The developmental implications of unauthorized status. Harvard Educational Review, 81(3), 438–472.
- Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M. M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a new land: Immigrant students in American society. Cambridge, MA, US: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. (The Challenge of Language Acquisition)
- Marks, A. K., Ejesi, K., & García Coll, C. (2014). Understanding the U.S. immigrant paradox in childhood and adolescence. Child Development Perspectives, 8(2), 59–64. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12071
- Greenman, E. (2013). Educational attitudes, school peer context, and the “immigrant paradox” in education. Social Science Research, 42(3), 698–714. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.12.014