Saturday, December 31, 2011

Maintaining heritage languages

A great many Asians migrate to English-speaking countries every year. In 2004, 12% of the people living in the United States were born overseas, and about a quarter of these were Asians (the second biggest group after Latin Americans). Between 1990 and 2000, the Chinese American community nearly doubled, from 1.6 million to 2.9 million. Koreans increased from 100,000 in 1970 to 1.2 million in 2000. In Canada, Asians comprised almost half of immigrants in 2004. Bryan Ray of the University of Ottawa notes how this has reversed the pattern of the 1970s when two thirds came from Europe and only 12% from Asia. In Australia 7.2% claimed Asian ancestry in the 2001 census, and over 10% in the city of Sydney.

Asian immigrants tend to have a positive image in the countries they migrate to. Their children often do better than average at school, even though English may not be the language spoken at home. This success is often attributed to a traditional emphasis on education and in particular to the networks of community schools they have established. But ironically, these schools seem to have been less successful in achieving the purpose for which most of them were originally set up: to maintain the heritage language of their parents or grandparents.

According to Richard Alba of New York State University, only a minority of immigrants maintain bilingualism into the third generation, and the numbers of bilingual Asians is especially low. A few decades ago, it was commonly believed that raising children bilingually was likely to confuse them and impede their progress at school. Many immigrants to English-speaking countries wanted their children to use English only. Nowadays, few doubt the benefits of bilingualism, not just because of the access it gives to different cultures and ways of looking at the world, but because bilinguals often seem to do better than average academically and to be more flexible and adaptable. Nevertheless the difficulty of raising children to be balanced bilinguals is often underestimated.

Koreans in the United States are known as high achievers both in schoolwork and in music. As well as attending English-medium schools, many get extra education in Korean at hagwon cram schools. Yet 78% of US-born Koreans use only English at home. Korean-language schools are heavily concentrated in a few areas, such as Los Angeles. Moreover, the pressure to do well at school means that many students concentrate all their efforts on studying only in English.

At first sight, the 10,000 Japanese in Sydney seem to do better at maintaining their heritage language. Oriyama Kaya of Victoria University in New Zealand found that nearly 9000 of them claim to speak Japanese well. Many of the children go to hoshuukoo, or special Japanese schools that supplement the classes they take at local English-medium schools. The Australian government provides funding if there are more than 20 students. However, the high level of Japanese is largely accounted for by the fact that most Japanese families do not settle permanently.

According to Nakane Ikuko of Melbourne University, the proportion of Japanese who emigrate long-term is now increasing, and their children, more of whom are being born in Australia and going to English-medium schools, are consequently using less Japanese. Discussions I had with Japanese residents of Auckland suggest that the picture is similar in New Zealand, with short-term residents able to maintain proficiency in Japanese but those settling down there starting to shift towards English.

The Australian government is increasingly concerned about another community of Asian immigrants, the Lebanese. Rosemary Suliman of the University of West Sydney claims that far from being bilingual, many Lebanese children are semilingual: unable to read or write Arabic and speaking it less and less with their parents, yet falling behind at school because they are not fully exposed to English until later than the other children.

The Tamils who left Sri Lanka during the recent civil war are finding it particularly difficult to maintain their language in countries such as Canada, the US and the UK. Suresh Canagarajah of Baluch College in New York found that while 38% of the younger generation in Toronto, where there are over 150,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, use both languages, but 41% now mostly use English. The picture is similar among the 50,000 Tamils in London, with 44% favouring English and only 36% preferring Tamil. One of the reasons for the shift is that many feel it is unlikely they will ever go back to Sri Lanka after the bitter divisions of years of ethnic conflict.