Assimilated or Acculturated? Helping Students Navigate Two Worlds

I like to use current events in my ELL classes, but I hate seeing immigration in the news. This politically touchy subject comes up everywhere from the presidential candidate debates to my own state’s legislature, where politicians want to make English the official language to save on translation fees (exactly how much they’ll save is never specified). One of the bill’s defenders said denying these services will “help immigrants to assimilate.”

Without going into my political problems with this legislation, the part that struck me was the idea of promoting assimilation. It made me think of an excellent book I read in graduate school, The Inner World of the Immigrant Child by Christina Igoa. The author grew up in many different countries and later became sympathetic to the plight of her English-language-learning students. She describes how damaging the pressure is for children to give up their native culture to fit into a new one that often seems unwelcoming.Some children may give up and surrender their identities to be assimilated; some may retreat into the safety of their culture’s community; and some may see themselves as a part of neither world.

But there is a fourth option. Instead of being assimilated, some students become “accultured.” Igoa describes this as when students feel secure in both worlds with a strong sense of personal identity. They are not ashamed of their heritage, and they are also not afraid of interacting with the mainstream English-speaking culture. To make this happen, they need to think critically about their own identities to learn who they are. This is something we at the secondary level like to see all of our students do, and we have a unique opportunity to help our ELLs make the most of their lives.

Some ways Igoa suggests we do this is by:

1. Open a dialogue: At all levels of language abilities, try to have your students discuss their experience. This can be anything from finding their home city on a map to writing a narrative about the differences. Exactly how may depend on the students and your resources, but at the least it’s important to encourage students to share their opinions comfortably. Recent immigrants may be in what Igoa calls the “silent stage” and be reluctant to talk to anyone about anything—they may need their classroom to be a safe space until they are comfortable enough to talk.

2. Validate their cultures: Proponents of assimilation seem to care little for any culture but their own, but as an adult and authority figure the students see regularly you are a de facto representative of your country. This is your chance to let them know that their heritage is not inferior by learning more about it yourself. There may be some concerns that come up with lingering prejudices from the students’ home cultures, particularly if it’s animosity towards other ethnic groups (for example, I once heard a Turkish student dismiss the high count of casualities from an earthquake in her home country by saying “They were only Kurds,”) and in these cases you may have to explain the value of tolerance.

3. Involve the families: The American education system’s expectation that parents and teachers work together to educate children is rather uncommon in the rest of the world. You should consider any possible resources to overcome the language barrier to reach out to the parents so you can model the school-family relationship while learning more about the students’ home lives.

This is a lot of additional work that won’t show up on a curriculum map geared towards getting students to learn the language. It may even be an uphill battle, as some students may reject their native cultures as a gesture of rebelliousness against their families. However, when the national and state decision makers are pushing for assimilation, you may be the only person in the students’ lives who gives them the option of seeking acculturation.


Igoa, C. (1995). The inner world of the immigrant child. New York, NY: Routledge.

from TESOL Blog


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