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Home arrow Economics arrow Bilingualism in Schools and Society: Language, Identity, and Policy


One of the prominent characteristics of globalization is significant shifts in population made possible through advances in transportation technology. More and more people are moving from one country to another in search of a better life. The International Organization for Migration (2011) reports that the total number of international migrants has increased over the last ten years from an estimated 150 million in 2000 to 214 million persons (3.1% of the world population) today. This figure includes immigrants, migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers, business and expatriate workers, international students, and even tourists. At present, there are 42.3 million refugees and internationally displaced persons (International Organization for Migration, 2011).

A large body of literature discusses issues related to language shift and maintenance among immigrants and their progeny as they settle down in a new country (e.g., Haugen, 1989; Shin, 2005; Taft & Cahill, 1989; Young & Tran, 1999). While traditional immigrants—those who leave their country of origin for a new country and stay there—are still a significant part of movement of people around the world, international migration in the globalized era is increasingly characterized by transnationalism, or the ability to go back and forth to the country of origin (Garda, 2009; Lo & Park, 2012; Yi, 2009). Transnational migrants present a different challenge to bilingualism scholars because, unlike traditional immigrants who more or less adopt the language of their host country and lose their native languages in the process, transmigrants’ back-and-forth movement between countries requires the development and maintenance of both languages.

Transmigration is motivated by a variety of economic, political, and educational factors in both the host and home countries. To illustrate a recent case,

I reproduce below a vignette from a research proposal written by one of my M.A. TESOL students, Angela Lima:

Earlier this year at our friends’ son’s birthday party, eight-year-old Luzmaria sat down next to me and said in perfect American English, “Guess what, Angela, we’re going back to Guatemala before Christmas!”

I thought to myself, “back?” because I knew she had never been there. I asked in reply, “Is your dad taking you for Christmas to see your family?” Luzmaria answered, “Yeah, and with my mom, and we’re staying there forever.”

Angela notes that Luzmaria was born in the U.S. to a Guatemalan father who is a legal permanent resident of the U.S. and a Guatemalan mother who has no legal status. The couple has made their home in the U.S. for more than 15 years. Recently, Luzmaria’s father’s business did poorly and the family lost their house in Maryland. The current recession in the U.S. and rising anti-immigrant sentiments are driving Luzmaria’s family as well as multitudes of others in similar situations to return to their country of origin. This is forcing the children, many of whom are U.S. citizens and are growing up in the U.S., to “go back” to countries in which they have never lived or have only spent minimal time as youngsters. These children are educated in U.S. schools, identify culturally with Americans in English, and have varying degrees of proficiencies in their parents’ native language. Once in Guatemala, however, Luzmaria will be expected to interact with others in Spanish, and may or may not receive help with accessing the school curriculum in Spanish. It is not clear whether there will be a Spanish as a Second Language class at her school and how understanding her teachers and peers will be of her insufficient command of Spanish.

Many returnees experience difficulties as they adjust to their new surroundings. King & Ganuza (2005) investigated the language and educational situation of Chilean transmigrants in Sweden whose families fled tyranny in Chile under Pinochet from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. They show that transmigration in both directions result in social and educational difficulties for the adolescents. In Sweden, Chileans tended to be assigned to apartments in segregated suburbs with other immigrant groups, and thus most have had limited contact with mainstream Swedish society. Parents who return to Chile typically struggle with unemployment, low wages, and insufficient housing, as well as discrimination for being retornados.

Children generally do not receive any special support from the school system, and struggle with feelings of insecurity and fear. King & Ganuza (2005) note that the educational integration of retornados is further complicated by the fact that they have twice been linguistic minorities forced to learn a language under stressful conditions (first learning Swedish during exile, and then re-learning or improving their Spanish upon return to Chile). Similarly, the children of Mexican transnationals in Martinez-Leon & Smith’s (2003) study face a number of challenges including a shortage of linguistically qualified teachers, lack of materials, and pejorative attitudes toward the language varieties spoken by retornados.

Orellana, Thorne, Chee, & Lam (2001) investigated three different transnational communities in California: (1) Mexican and Central American migrants in Los Angeles, (2) Yemeni families who live in Oakland, and (3) “parachute kids” who have migrated from Korea to attend school in the U.S. The authors report that chain migration—which involves one or more adults migrating first and gradually sending for other family members—is a common pattern for Mexican and Central American migrants in Los Angeles, and for Yemeni migrants in Oakland. These families often make arrangements for children to stay with relatives in the home country to avoid the uncertainties of life during the transition. Orellana et al. (2001) note that even when the children settle in the U.S., the Central American, Mexican, and Yemeni parents keep open the option of “sending their children back home” in order to avoid problems, especially during the teenage years. All of the families maintain active ties to their homeland by traveling back and forth, and stay connected with family and friends by communicating via phone or email and sending and receiving video images.

Aside from family migration, individuals who have been internationally adopted are going back and forth between their birth country and adoptive country. In her study of transnational adoptees, Volkman (2005) notes that what used to be a unidirectional movement of children from poor countries to more affluent ones has now become a crisscrossing flow of adoptees revisiting the countries of their birth. Volkman (2005: 2) contends that these returning adoptees are striking instances of larger transnational processes and that

travel in its many forms, the rise of the internet and the global cyberspatial communities it produces, and efforts to create international legal frameworks all produce new forms of family and new articulations of identity that may not coincide easily with notions of the nation.

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