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The research on the relationship between heritage language and identity development suggests that developing a strong sense of ethnic identity is crucial during adolescence when periods of identity crisis shape one’s self-concept and self-esteem (Lee & Suarez, 2009; Phinney, Romero, Nava, & Huang, 2001; Tse, 2000). Lee & Suarez (2009) argue that for children who live at the intersection of two languages and cultures, depriving them of either language or culture does injustice to their sense of identity. They argue that children must be supported to develop in both languages and learn to be part of both cultures. Correspondingly, ethnic minorities with heritage language proficiency have been found to develop a stronger sense of bicultural identity than those without (e.g., Cho & Krashen, 1998; Jo, 2001; Lee, 2002; Lee & Suarez, 2009; Phinney et al., 2001; Rumbaut, 1994).

For example, in her study of the role of cultural identity and heritage language maintenance among second-generation Korean American university students, Lee (2002) found that heritage language proficiency tended to correlate with the degree of the participants’ bicultural identity—that is, those who had greater Korean proficiency were more likely to identify themselves as both American and Korean. Lee & Suarez (2009) point out that immigrant children’s sense of their “Americanness” is not diminished, but enhanced by a better understanding of their own ethnic identity and competence in their heritage language. Likewise, Portes & Rumbaut (2006) argue that immigrant groups that maintain their own ethnic language and culture while learning English and the U.S. culture have more positive acculturation experiences than those who switch over to English altogether.

The research by Pao, Wong, & Teuben-Rowe (1997) suggests that heritage language proficiency is strongly related to the identity of mixed-heritage individuals. The authors divided the participants into two groups based on language ability—a bilingual group and a monolingual English-speaking group. They found that the bilingual group had more support for the development of positive self-identities than did the monolingual group, who at times experienced feelings of isolation from both cultures. The bilingual participants believed that the ability to speak the languages of both of their parents was fundamental to their identity. In my own research on mixed-heritage individuals, I also found that the heritage language figures importantly in the participants’ understanding of who they are (Shin, 2010). While some of the young adults in my study used their knowledge of the heritage language to gain greater access to and legitimacy in the ethnic community, some who never developed in that language lamented not being able to connect with their heritage-language-speaking parents and extended family members at a deeper level.

However, there are some studies which suggest that the relationship between heritage language proficiency and identity may not be so strong. For example, in her study of Hopi Indian youth, Nicholas (2009) showed that even without a strong proficiency in the Hopi language, youth learn to act, think, and feel Hopi through their active participation in their Hopi world. The Hopi youth who have no functional proficiency in the language nonetheless identified themselves strongly as Hopi and distinguished themselves from the Whites. Although the Hopi youth admitted that language is an important way of identifying with Hopi culture, they did not think language was necessarily a requirement for identification as Hopi. Similarly, in a study of Navajo and Pueblo Indian youth, Tiffany S. Lee (2009) found that while indigenous languages play an important role in contemporary youth identity, the youths’ lack of proficiency in the heritage languages did not diminish their indigenous consciousness.

How do we make sense of these seemingly conflicting results? Which claim is right? Does heritage language proficiency matter or not in ethnic identity formation? Part of the answer to this question lies in the different populations studied. Lee (2002) and Tse (2000) base their research on children of Asian immigrants to the U.S. for whom language shift is ongoing in the family. As second-generation immigrants, these participants have grown up in homes where the immigrant language is spoken by the parents to varying degrees. Few of these children speak the heritage language well, while the majority of them, due to external pressures and/or personal choice, have neglected and developed little or no proficiency in that language. Language maintenance or shift is largely a matter of personal choice for these relatively recent immigrants, who are sometimes referred to as voluntary minorities (Ogbu, 1992). These are people who have voluntarily immigrated to the host country in search of a better life.

In contrast, the Native American youth in Nicholas’s (2009) and Lee’s (2009) studies are considered involuntary minorities, those who were originally brought into American society against their will through slavery, conquest, colonization, or forced labor, and were often denied the opportunity for full participation in the mainstream society. Feelings of language shame are endemic among indigenous communities after generations of oppression and cultural domination by the mainstream society. In a study of Native youth in the U.S. Southwest, McCarty, Romero, & Zepeda (2006) found that Navajo youth and their teachers had different perceptions of the number of Navajo speakers in their school. The teachers reported that between 30% and 50% of youth in their school could speak Navajo, whereas Navajo youth perceived this number to be between 75% and 80%. To explain this difference, the authors noted that many youth viewed speaking Navajo as an “emblem of shame” and hence give the impression they do not have Navajo language skills when in school (McCarty et al., 2006: 38).

Forced cultural assimilation of indigenous populations has been a common practice in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. For several decades, the U.S. government operated a program of boarding schools specifically designed to eradicate Native Americans’ language and culture (Cultural Survival, 2011). Native American children were taken from their families, sent to boarding schools in faraway places and severely punished when caught speaking their native languages. This resulted in widespread language shame and language loss among indigenous peoples. Language shift is very advanced in many Native American communities—70 of the 139 Native American languages spoken today are expected to disappear in the next five years (Cultural Survival, 2011). In this context, Native youth must negotiate what it means to be a Native person in today’s society with or without their language. Their identity cannot ride solely on their proficiency in their heritage language.

Aside from the differences in the populations studied, the conflicting results can be explained in part by different methodologies used in the studies. Lee (2002) used a 76-item written questionnaire which elicited participants’ responses regarding their personal history, language skills, and cultural identity. Each of her 40 participants self-rated his/her proficiency and cultural identity on a five-point Likert scale in terms of how strongly he/she agreed with the statements. For example, participants could choose a number between 1 (strongly disagree) and 5 (strongly agree) on Korean orientation statements such as, “Knowing Korean will help me become successful” or, “I enjoy Korean music.” They were presented with American orientation statements that mirrored the Korean statements, such as, “Knowing English will help me become successful” or, “I enjoy American music.” The responses were put through a series of regression analyses to determine whether language proficiency had any effect on the participants’ cultural identity. What Lee found was that Korean language proficiency had a significant effect on both the participants’ Korean orientation and American orientation, leading her to conclude that a higher heritage language proficiency is related with a stronger sense of bicultural identity.

In comparison, Nicholas (2009) employed a case study approach involving in-depth interviews and participant observation. She provides rich, detailed descriptions of each of her three participants’ backgrounds, including information on their personalities, physical characteristics, family makeup, hobbies, and career aspirations. As an “insider” researcher (Nicholas is a Hopi), she was able to observe informally the daily routines, conversations, and behaviors of her participants in the homes and the village. Building her analysis around these detailed observations and interviews, Nicholas presents a more intimate, personal account of identity. Her argument that even without a command of the Hopi language youth can develop a strong orientation to the Hopi way of life is supported by interview excerpts like the following:

Yeah it’s important to speak, but that’s not all that counts. Because a Pahaana (Anglo) can learn how to speak it, speak the language, but they don’t know the meaning behind it, or the actual culture, the in-depth stuff; [so] then they’re not Hopi. They don’t practice our religious ceremony[ies] and they don’t live Hopi; [so] then they’re not Hopi.

(Dorian, age 19, a nonspeaker of Hopi; emphasis added by Nicholas) (2009: 321)

By staying away from pre-established identity statements such as those used by Lee (e.g., “I fit in well with Koreans" “I believe in American values”), Nicholas explores the issues of identity in a more open-ended manner. Had Nicholas adopted a survey method, she may not have been able to fully explain the intricacies of various Hopi religious ceremonies, farming rituals, and naming practices, all of which her participants considered to be crucial in their construction of a Hopi identity.

I am not implying that a qualitative method is better than a quantitative one. In fact, both methods are useful in their own ways. Questionnaires, popular in social science research, are better suited for studying large numbers of people because they are relatively easy to administer and analyze. Likert-scale and multiple-choice type questions used in questionnaires lend themselves well to statistical tests to show general trends, relationships, and correlations. On the other hand, qualitative studies usually require a significant amount of observations and interaction with participants and are therefore difficult to carry out with a large group. The important point to remember is that, as researchers, we need to avail ourselves of different methodologies, and know when to use which. We also need to be careful about making generalizations based on published research. Does heritage language proficiency matter in ethnic identity formation? Based on the above discussion, the answer is both yes and no, depending on the population involved and status of the language.

Research shows that the relationship between identity and language is in fact not linear and is complicated by interactions with a range of other factors such as social class, gender, geographic location, and generational differences (Lam, 2004a; Nguyen & Stritikus, 2009; Nieto, 2002; Phinney et al., 2001; Schecter & Bayley, 1997). For instance, in a study of the language socialization practices of four Mexican-descent families in northern California and in south Texas, Schecter & Bayley (1997) found that while all four focal children defined themselves as Mexican or Mexican American, only two of the families had aggressive Spanish maintenance strategies. Of the other two families, one combined some Spanish use in the home with instruction from Spanish-speaking relatives, whereas the family that had moved most completely into the middle class was the least successful in the intergenerational transmission of Spanish, despite a commitment to cultural maintenance.

Lee & Suarez (2009) contend that many immigrants experience what Bedolla (2003) calls “selective dissociation” with their heritage language and culture as a response to interactions in which their mother tongues become a source of shame rather than pride. They argue that when there are negative associations with one’s culture and language, individuals tend to dissociate from the ethnic group, but in contexts where the heritage culture is viewed in a positive light, they desire close identification with the group. Thus, rather than being a fixed entity, identity is constructed and shaped through social interaction. This in fact represents the constructivist views on identity, to which I turn next.

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