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A number of researchers have proposed models of ethnic identity development, suggesting that ethnic minorities progress through a predictable path when coming to terms with their minority status. Drawing on the works of social psychologists (e.g., Phinney, 1989), Tse (1998) proposes a four-stage model of ethnic identity development that forecasts racial minorities’ shifting attitudes toward the heritage and majority languages. “Stage 1—Unawareness” is a relatively brief period when ethnic minorities are not conscious of their minority status and/or of the subordinate status often associated with it. This stage typically occurs before major contact with other ethnic or racial groups, for example, before attending school or leaving an ethnic enclave. Preschool children in immigrant families can normally be found in this stage.

“Stage 2—Ethnic Ambivalence/Evasion” is characterized by ambivalent or negative feelings toward the ethnic culture and preferred identification with the dominant societal group. Starting formal schooling typically marks the beginning of Stage 2. This stage may span a relatively long period, for example, childhood through adolescence, and even through adulthood. In her analysis of the personal narratives of Americans of Asian descent, Tse (2000) states that the desire to be accepted by the dominant group, together with perceived failure to meet the criteria for group membership, led to feelings of alienation for several of the narrators, particularly when their distinctiveness was made salient. One of the narrators, Ben Fong-Torres, who as a child experienced shame and embarrassment at encountering a stereotypical Asian comic book figure, felt alienated when he was identified with that character:

I remember the shock I felt in physical education class when Coach Kile, a handsome young man, looked at me early in the semester, clapped his hands, and yelled, “Let’s go, Chop Chop!” ... For a kid who was longing to belong, it was a devastating blow. Trying only to fit in, I had been singled out; I was that round little yellow-skinned guy in the comic book.

I was the Ching-Chong Chinaman.

(Tse, 2000: 194-195)

Many of the narrators in Tse’s (2000) study saw language as a sign of ethnic group membership and tried to dissociate themselves from their heritage languages while identifying with English. David Mura recounted feelings of pride in his fluency in English and in his inability to speak Japanese because “I didn’t want to be thought of as Japanese-American ... I didn’t want to be classified as one of the typical Asian science geeks, even though math was my best subject in high school” (Tse, 2000: 195). For many ethnic minorities, Stage 2 is a difficult period characterized by conflicting emotions and attitudes toward the mainstream society and their ethnic communities.

“Stage 3—Ethnic Emergence” is a time when ethnic minorities explore their heritage after confronting the fact that they are members of a minority group. In contrast to Stage 2 where ethnic minorities prefer associating with the majority group, the exploration during Stage 3 leads some to embrace their ethnicity in favor of the mainstream group. Finally, in “Stage 4—Ethnic Identity Incorporation," ethnic minorities discover and join their ethnic group (e.g., Mexican Americans, Chinese Canadians, etc.) and resolve many of the identity conflicts that were present in the previous stage. Because much of the confusion and uncertainty experienced during Stages 2 and 3 are resolved in Stage 4, this last stage is characterized by acceptance of oneself as an ethnic minority and improved self-image.

Tse (1998) qualifies her model by stating that not all racial and ethnic minorities go through the four stages. She observes that some ethnic minorities, including many adult immigrants, may never aspire to become a member of the dominant group, and therefore, never go through these four stages. Individuals are more likely to disassociate from a social group in favor of another if they believe that the boundaries between the old group and the new group are easily crossed. She argues that if ethnic minorities have strong ties to the ethnic culture and/or possess cultural markers that are not easily shed (e.g., an accent in English), joining the dominant group may never be seen as plausible or desirable.

Despite these qualifications, Tse’s model is useful in predicting that heritage language acquisition is more likely to occur when someone is not in Stage 2. For optimal result, heritage language education needs to begin when children are in Stage 1 (i.e., preschool and early elementary years). Introducing the language in middle or high school is not very effective since this is when many ethnic minority youth are in Stage 2 and avoid being identified as members of their ethnic groups. Some language minority students take up heritage language classes for the first time in college, but this is often not as effective as starting earlier. Regardless of the stage one is in, Tse emphasizes the importance of heritage language group membership (e.g., positive peer relationships) in developing proficiency in the heritage language. Creating opportunities for positive social interaction in the language is essential.

Tse’s model is supported by longitudinal investigations of bilingual children. Caldas & Caron-Caldas (2002) examined the evolving language preferences of their three French/English bilingual children, twin girls aged 13 and a boy aged 15. The children were raised in a predominantly French-speaking home in south Louisiana by the bilingual French/English-speaking authors, but spent summers in French-speaking Quebec. As the children moved into adolescence, they spoke significantly more English in their Louisiana home, but maintained their use of French in Quebec. The children’s preference for English in Louisiana and French in Quebec was attributed to their desire to identify with monolingual peers in those settings. In a follow-up study, Caldas (2006) examined the changing bilingual self-perceptions of the three children from early adolescence through early adulthood. He found that the children valued their bilingualism much more as older adolescents than as younger adolescents. As older adolescents, they were less affected by peer pressure and had a greater sense of bicultural identity.

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