Cases of adult Korean heritage language learners (pilot study)

Reclaiming Heritage:
Cases of Adult Korean Heritage Language Learners (Pilot Study)
Siwon Lee, Educational Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania ([email protected])
Background of the Study
Korean community is one of the most salient ethnic groups in the
United States in terms of collective effort to maintain their
language and culture. There are approximately 1,200 Korean
community language schools in the U.S., most of which are
operated by Korean Christian churches in the form of weekend
schools (Zhou & Kim, 2006). Despite the active community
involvement, these schools have shown low success rates due to
the lack of trained teachers, outdated teaching materials, and
unmotivated students (Lee & Shin, 2008). Even though the ideal
way of maintaining the language is to bring it into the regular
school curriculum, there are currently only five Korean-English
two-way immersion schools in the U.S. (Center for Applied
Linguistics, n.d.). Thus, many Korean immigrants choose to
relearn their mother tongue as adults. The current research is a
multiple case study about two adult 2nd generation Korean
Americans who lost their mother tongue through the course of their
lives but chose to redevelop Korean.
<Student enrollment at Korean community language schools in US>
Childhood: Unexplored Ethnicity
Angela is a 33-year-old, 2nd generation Korean
American living in Philadelphia. After she
graduated from university, she started working as
a freelance interior designer and got married. She
has been learning Korean at a non-profit
institution in Philadelphia for almost two years.
Peter is a 30-year-old, 2nd generation Korean
American living in a small Korea town in
Pennsylvania. After graduating from college, he
started working for his family real-estate
business in the town. He has been learning
Korean at the same institution for about three
Theoretical Framework
(1) Ethnic identity as a part of social identity:
“Part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his
knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups)
together with the value and emotional significance attached to that
membership” (Tajfel, 1981, p. 255)
Research Questions
By following each participant’s path of learning Korean throughout
their lives, the current research aims to address the following
(1) What factors have affected these Korean Americans’ language
shift toward English?
(2) Why do they strive to relearn Korean as adults?
(3) How does their language use and motivation relate to their
ethnic identity?
Research Methods
The current multiple case study defines a case, or the unit of
analysis, as each individual situated in different learning settings,
and the differences and similarities across cases will shed light on
the overarching theme of the relationship between heritage
language and ethnic identities of Korean Americans.
The study adopted a range of qualitative research methods
including semi-structured interviews and research journals.
Besides informal interaction with the researcher, the participants
were interviewed twice during the two months of data collection
period. The first round of interviews followed the chronological
order of participants’ experiences of learning or using Korean
language throughout their lifetime, and the second interviews were
the follow-ups of the first interviews.
(2) Ethnic identity development models
Marcia Identity
(1980) diffusion
Phinney Unexamined ethnic
(1989) identity*
teacher actually said to them he have to speak more English in the house,
because he couldn't keep up. So then, they took it (.) very literally, and
then just stopped using Korean. . . My family is a little bit of a rare case of
we just never learned it
Peter: My parents are very educated, and they learned English quickly,
so they um: (.) spoke to us [in English]. . . Actually, I guess it was out of
habit they spoke (.) Korean. >I mean they spoke English.<
Adolescence to Young Adulthood: Identity Conflict
Angela: I didn't wanna know [Korean language] (.) at that time because
I (1.2) when you are in junior high, you don't care about that, or you are
too busy doing something else.
(About her visit to South Korea after graduating from high school) If they
[older Koreans] saw me, and I couldn't speak, and knew that I came from
America, they got really upset. like (.) why don't you know your own,
your own native language. . . And so for a most, a long, a long time, my
life felt like that, if I was (.) around older Koreans, and I tried to speak
Korean, or I didn't understand, there was a lot of negative emotions with
Peter: Dichotomies. It's like I didn't, why are they speaking in Korean. I
didn't really understand them, and I distanced myself from them, and then
(.) but then I wanted to fit in with them because (1.0) um: I am Korean. I
am also Korean, I am not only American.
Angela: When my oldest brother was a baby, he spoke Korean. . . he has
Involvement in
Clear sense of
exploring meaning
own ethnicity
of ethnicity**
*One’s identity is either diffuse, which means that he/she has not
given much thought about issues of own ethnicity; or foreclosed,
which means that he/she shows commitment to either one’s own
ethnic group or the dominant group under the influence of parents,
community members, and peers.
**Before the exploring stage, identity crisis stage may be added
when one may become aware of the issues of one’s own ethnicity
due to significant experience but still rejects to explore his/her own
ethnicity (Cross, 1978).
(3) Ethnic identity and language choice
The current study will be based on this postmodernist
understanding of ethnic identity and language (Gilroy, 2000; Hall
1992). Postmodernist epistemologists assert that social identities
are hybrid, dynamic, and complex and that language is a
contingent—not the only essential—feature of one’s ethnicity.
Here, contingency does not mean insignificance. While language
may not be a determining factor of one’s identity, a number of
communities form strong solidarity around their ethnicity and
language regardless of the perceived status of language within the
society, which may account for language maintenance as well as
language shift of minority language speakers.
Adulthood: Exploring Stage
Angela’s Changing Point: I remember feeling regretful after she [my
grandmother] passed away that I didn't I understood generally what she
was saying [during my last visit to her house]. I could tell that she was
saying you know like oh you know good things, but I couldn't, I didn't
know what exactly she was saying. So I regretted (.) not understanding,
and not being able to communicate with her.
Peter’s Changing Point: (About his ten-month stay in South Korea)
Studying [Korean] with all Yonsei students [in Korea], I felt the love for (.)
the country and love for um: you know, just being able to communicate
(.) with native Koreans. And um, it was just: um, yeah, being in that
environment with people from every country. And like (.) it just made
me think of my roots as a Korean American.
Angela’s Motivation and Goals: Definitely learning Korean helps me
understand the culture, and sort of (1.0) like subtleties of culture that
otherwise you wouldn't learn, just from looking at it maybe? Um: (.) but I
think that helps me to identify to also with me and how I think
differently↑. Because (1.0) I think, especially being in a marriage with
somebody that is not of Korean background↑, you see the differences
much more and especially when you start thinking about a family, or even
interacting with each other's families?
. . . I want to at least be able to understand when somebody is talking to
me, even if I can’t say back.
Peter’s Motivation and Goals: My goals (.) are to be, to be fluent in
Korean . . .um: to be a translator for (.) the Korean people so that (.)
they can understand, and other Americans can understand what a Korean
person's saying, and: and to, to be a like a Korean teacher. I want to uh
teach Korean (.) so that they [“other Americans”] can (.) learn how to
Ethnic Identity as a Developmental and Social Concept
Ethnic identity is largely influenced by one’s changing
positionality of self within different social contexts , which, in both
cases, ranged from family and school to the macro contexts of
United States and South Korea.
Ethnic Identity in Relation to Language
Language is closely related to how one identifies with his or her
ethnic group.
Angela: Personal level
Angela relates learning Korean
to the process of learning about
Korean culture, i.e. how
Koreans think or how she thinks,
which is also learned through
her personal relationship with
Peter: Community level
Peter relates learning Korean as
a means to learn about Korean
pop culture and to contribute to
the Korean community. He takes
pride in his ethnicity, seeing
many foreigners learning
Korean language.
Acknowledgements and Works Cited
Special thanks to: Professor Sharon Ravitch, Professor Nancy
Hornberger, Professor Yuko Butler, and my great students.
Center for Applied Linguistics. (n.d.). Directory of Two-Way Bilingual
Immersion Programs in the U.S. Retrieved from
Cross, W (1978). The Thomas and Cross models of psychological
nigrescence: A literature review. Journal of Black Psychology, 4, 13-31.
Gilroy, P. (2000). Between camps. London, UK: Penguin.
Hall, S. (1992). The questions of cultural identity. In S. Hall, D. Held, &
T. McGrew (Eds.), Modernity and its futures (pp. 274-325). Cambridge,
UK: Polity Press.
Lee, J. S., & Shin, S. (2008). Korean heritage language education in the
United States: The current state, opportunities and possibilities.
Heritage Language Journal, 6(2), 1-20.
Marcia, J. (1980). Identity in adolescence. In J. Adelson (Ed.), Handbook
of adolescent psychology (pp. 159-187). New York: Wiley.
Phinney, J. (1989). Stages of ethnic identity in minority group adolescents.
Journal of Early Adolescence, 9, 34-49
Tajfel, H. (1981). Human groups and social categories. Cambridge,
UK: Cambridge University Press.
Zhou, M., & Kim. S. S. (2006). Community forces, social capital, and
educational achievement: The case of supplementary education in the
Chinese and Korean immigrant communities. Harvard Educational
Review, 76(1), 1-29.
Presenter Information
I am a doctoral student studying Educational Linguistics at
University of Pennsylvania. My research interest is in bilingual
education in the United States as well as in East Asia, the identity
formation of 2nd generation Asian Americans, and curriculum
development for Korean heritage language learners. Currently, I
am teaching Korean at the Society of Young Korean Americans in
Philadelphia. I am also involved in Asia-Pacific Education,
Language Minorities, and Migration (ELMM) network at Penn.

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