Developing in Two languages: Korean Children in America. Sarah Shin. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters LTD. 2005. 194 pp. (reviewed by Olga Kagan, UCLA)
Reviewed by Olga Kagan, UCLA
In this book, author Sarah Shin analyzes the development of bilingualism in Korean children in the United States. Her focus is on the acquisition of English rather than on the maintenance of Korean; nevertheless, Shin’s general approach and her sociological and linguistic data make her study relevant for heritage language research and a viable model for studies of immigrant communities in other languages. Shin provides information on both the Korean immigrant community in the United States and the main features of the Korean language, making the book more accessible to readers who are not specialists in Korean. I would recommend it to readers whose interests lie in both bilingual and heritage education.
In the Introduction, Shin describes her own experience as a 1.5 generation Korean speaker. She came to the United States at 13 and “grew up wanting to be a monolingual English speaker” (p. 2). At times she even pretended not to know Korean because she perceived that her school did not value the education she received in Korean. She even felt that she was considered “stupid”; for example, she was placed in a remedial math class even though she had already studied a higher level of math in Korea. “It was much later,” she writes, “that I realized that my native language and culture were a treasure, not a problem.” (p.2) Shin provides another personal example, describing her and her husband’s decision to use Korean at home so that their American-born children would retain their linguistic heritage. She writes that “as ethnic minorities my sons will always be perceived as different from the mainstream Anglo populations and even be held responsible for not knowing their ethnic language and culture.” (p. 7) To support her position, she points out that Korean American college graduates are sometimes turned down by companies doing business in Korea precisely because they are ethnically Korean but do not know the Korean language. Shin suggests that these kinds of incidents may make it clear to families that their efforts to blend in backfire; it turns out that there was value in preserving the family language knowledge after all.
I have focused on the author’s account of her personal history, which does not take a lot of space in the book, because it makes her book more insightful without diminishing its scholarly content. Shin’s experience appears to be common for newly arrived immigrant children and, as such, points to a need for heritage education on several levels. Shin does not state these needs but they are easy to infer from reading her monograph. There is a need to educate K-12 teachers, immigrant children and their families, and society, about the value of bilingualism as knowledge and the desirability that it be nurtured and that heritage language knowledge be treated with respect. This type of education is particularly important for two reasons: a more embracing view of other languages would aid rather than delay assimilation, and devaluing the children’s language makes communication between children and parents more difficult.
I will now turn to the organization of the book and its analysis.
Chapter 1 focuses on general principles of childhood bilingualism. It presents a short discussion of research on bilingualism, including the differences between successive and simultaneous language acquisition, language shift and maintenance, and the pros and cons of bilingual education. This broad picture informs the rest of the book. Since heritage language education is also concerned with questions of bilingualism and since it is a new field, this short review of bilingual studies is particularly useful, particularly for graduate students at the beginning of their exploration of the issues involved in heritage language education.
Chapter 2 is an overview of the Korean community in the U.S. Shin only addresses elements of immigration history that are relevant to language development. Koreans are among the newest immigrants to this country. Shin places the beginning of a large-scale immigration from Korea in the 1970s and describes this group of immigrants as educated professionals from the urban middle class whose emigration from Korea was in part motivated by their desire to seek better educational opportunities for their children. It is only natural, then, as Shin points out, that parents want their children to excel in English. However, English is difficult for Koreans to learn because of the dissimilarity between the languages, and many parents, despite their education, never gain effortless proficiency in English. In part for this reason, parents want their children to preserve their knowledge of Korean as well. But as is the case in other immigrant communities, English quickly becomes the dominant and frequently the sole language of the second or even the 1.5 generation unless special effort is extended to preserve the mother tongue. If children acquire English and forego Korean, family relationships may be strained. As Shin shows convincingly, this family and community history and dynamic is crucial for the understanding of both the acquisition of English and maintenance or loss of Korean by Korean children.
Chapter 3 describes methods of data collection. The research that underlies the book is extensive: the author recorded the speech of Korean-American children while serving as a teaching assistant in an elementary school class. She also interviewed a large number of parents and conducted follow-up interviews with some respondents.
Chapters 4-6 present an analysis of English acquisition by Korean children. It was particularly interesting for me to note that according to Shin’s data, there was very little “language mixing” (p.83) in the samples of unsolicited speech she recorded. However, the author is concerned with the use of Korean in English, not the use of English when children spoke Korean. While Shin seems to emphasize her finding as significant, I would not expect any other result. In studies of heritage language use, most code-switching results from embedding English into the heritage language, rather than the other way around. For example, Russian heritage language learners I interviewed in 2006 (work in progress) were surprised by my question whether they inserted Russian words when speaking English. They were all aware, however, that they would use English words and expressions when they were unable or found it difficult to express themselves in Russian. It seems that code-switching by heritage speakers means inserting the dominant language and not the home language. One caveat, of course, is that Shin’s respondents were elementary school children, while I interviewed college students. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to compare Shin’s data recorded during class with the same students’ use of Korean at home and see whether there would be code-switching into English or whether they would use a certain percentage of English borrowings.
Chapter 5 deals with dual language development, in particular the acquisition of English grammatical morphemes and plurals. Using comparisons between the acquisition of English by monolingual children and children who speak other languages, for example Spanish or Chinese, Shin concludes that “young immigrant children temporarily lag behind in their grammatical development of both of their languages.” (p.124) This is an important conclusion that K-12 teachers should be aware of. While language acquisition may be delayed, both languages will develop in time if appropriate instruction is provided (Sohn & Merrill, 2008).
In Chapter 6 Shin reports on her interviews with Korean parents. While 81% of the parents interviewed had a college education or graduate degrees, they reported difficulties comprehending or speaking English. Most parents felt that children should be able to speak both English and Korean, with over 80% of the surveyed parents agreeing that it was “bad, shameful or unacceptable” (p. 135) for their children not to speak Korean. About 40% of the parents send their children to Sunday school to learn Korean, but according to some interviews quoted in the book, this schooling may not significantly help children’s language maintenance. Similar to other immigrant communities, Korean parents face a struggle of maintaining Korean at home while their children use English in all their activities outside of home. Shin gives an example of a mother who tried to enforce a daily “Korean time” (two hours of Korean only) on her teenage children only to discover that children would prefer not to speak at all for two hours rather than speak in Korean. As many parents would, this mother concluded that it was more important to communicate with her children than to enforce use of the home language, and she ‘let go’, i.e. switched to English. (p. 139) In this chapter, Shin also describes lack of understanding of bilingualism among K-12 teachers and other education professionals who believe that bilingualism is undesirable or even harmful to children. As I said at the beginning of the review, this points to a need to educate professionals who come in contact with immigrant children about the realities of bilingual development. The foreign born make up over 13% of the population of the U.S. nationally (U.S. Census, 2008) and a much higher percentage in some parts of the country; for example, over 36% of Los Angeles County residents are foreign born (U.S. Census, 2008). Given these numbers, we could conclude that schools of education should make a study of bilingual development a requirement for all K-12 teachers, no matter what subject they teach.
In Chapter 7 Shin offers advice on heritage education and policy. Since this topic is not the focus of her book, the discussion of heritage language learning appears as almost an afterthought. Nevertheless, readers can come to many important conclusions themselves, because Shin presents rich and well supported data on bilingual development and addresses its multifaceted nature, including linguistic, personal, family, and societal parameters.
I pointed out at the beginning of this review that Sarah Shin’s monograph can serve as a model for studies in other immigrant languages. What makes it a model is her presentation of community history and family relationships that frame the linguistic discussion of language acquisition by immigrant children. While the book is about bilingualism with the focus on the acquisition of English rather than the maintenance or loss of Korean, it is nevertheless valuable as a study of heritage language learners. Only if we understand both the acquisition of English and the loss and maintenance of the heritage language will we be able to assemble a complete picture of heritage language learners’ linguistic competencies.
I have always believed it unfair for a reviewer to complain that something is missing in a book rather than evaluating its content. It is the author’s prerogative to decide what to study and what to omit. This time, though, I feel a desire to take a standpoint of an unfair reviewer. An additional chapter on children’s use of Korean would make this book complete and even more valuable for heritage language educators and specialists in bilingualism. Even without such a chapter, however, the book is an excellent and a truly useful contribution to the field of heritage language education.
Sohn, S-O S. & C. Merrill (2008) The Korean/English dual language program in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In Brinton, Kagan, and Bauckus (Eds.), Heritage language education: A new field emerging (pp. 269-287). NY: Routledge.
Lee, J.S. & Oxelson, E. (2006). It's not my job": K-12 teacher attitudes toward students' heritage language maintenance. Bilingual Research Journal, 30(2), 453-477.
U.S. Census (2008). Table B05006. Place of birth for the foreign-born population - universe: foreign-born population excluding population born at sea. 2007 American Community Survey. Available at http://www.census.gov
U.S. Census. (2008). Los Angeles County, California: Selected social characteristics in the United States: 2007. 2007 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates. Available at http://www.census.gov
Published: Sunday, October 26, 2008