Pearson speaks on internationalizing communities for Asian Heritage Month

By Audrey Sochor | 2/13/13 7:45pm

Exotic foods, art, dance and music are all integral parts for honoring Asian Pacific American Heritage Celebration Month at Grand Valley State University. But event planners also want to bring greater understanding of these diverse cultures by diving beneath the surface.

On Feb. 11, Christen Pearson, associate professor of English linguistics and TESOL at GVSU, spoke about the struggles foreign adoptive children and international students can face with language barriers and cultural differences during “Internationalizing Families, Internationalizing Communities, and the Children Navigating These Uncharted Waters.”

During her presentation, Pearson said there were more than 5 million English language learners (ELLs) enrolled in U.S. school systems in 2004. Of those, 76 percent had Spanish as their native language, followed by Vietnamese at 2.4 percent, Hmong at 1.8 percent, and Korean and Arabic at 1.2 percent.

“My interest (in ELLs) started because I was a parent. First of a boy, then another boy and another boy, but I wanted a girl so I adopted,” Pearson said.

Pearson spoke about her study of internationally adopted children as they learned English as well as internationalizing families and university communities.

“When designing topics for the Asian Heritage Celebration Month, I always want to be comprehensive in the context as well as the different ethnics groups in the Asian community,” said Connie Dang, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Newcomers have joined our community, including Vietnamese, Hmong and Laotians, Dang added.

“I wanted to be mindful of the language barrier that, you know, this population encounters,” Dang said, adding she wanted to bring awareness to the struggles bilingual students may encounter at GVSU or other campuses when coming come to our institution.

Foreign speaking students can have a hard time articulating themselves to professors, or struggle with English writing courses they have to take, Dang said.

Besides struggling with language barriers, Pearson said foreign speaking students are expected to assimilate to U.S. culture and can be misunderstood because of cultural differences.

People often celebrate culture on a surface level with cooking, music, art and dress, but deeper levels are not addressed. Because people often don’t dig beyond surface levels, differences in facial expressions or eye contact can make it harder for students.

Some cultures have a “blank face” that we think means they don’t care, but they do, Pearson said. They just come from a culture that doesn’t show emotion a lot.

Another time Pearson said an instructor got upset when a student wouldn’t make eye contact. What he didn’t know was the student was showing respect because in the culture, not maintaining eye contact and giving them space was courtesy.

“Teachers might be able to adapt their learning approach if they understand cultural differences on a deeper level,” Pearson said.

To internationalize communities and families, she said people need to have an open discussion on acculturation vs. assimilation.

In the past, Pearson said we pushed for others to be like us, but are now realizing it’s not always a good thing. Even so, she added adoptive families and others not always try to understand the culture.

On average, Pearson said 18,185 children were adopted per year from countries such as China, Ethiopia, Russia and South Korea in 2000-2011.

Adoption did decrease in 2011 because “lots of things going on globally,” including countries getting back on their feet, single mothers becoming more acceptable and economic problems here, she added.

“Fewer and fewer families can afford this, or afford more children in the family,” Pearson said.

As an adoptive parent of two special needs children from Korea, experience with ELLs is something Pearson has.

But what she wanted to know is how did internationally adopted children between ages 3 and 15, who already had a first language in place, fare when learning English?

In her study, Pearson looked at 207 adopted children from non-English speaking countries that had been in their new home for 12 months.

She found many appeared to be doing well (75 percent with age or near age appropriate comprehension) with functional English after one year, but variables including health, personality and neglect could have an effect.

But there was a concern with children’s first language proficiency before basic English was in place. “In as little as six months a child can lose their first language,” Pearson said. This could make it harder for them to learn English.

When it came to academic English, many children didn’t fare as well: 37 percent had age appropriate comprehension. The same factors plus time in orphanage, age of arrival in U.S., and physical and sexual abuse, influenced their ability to learn academic English.

“For every 3 to 4 months spent in an orphanage, the child is a month behind (in language proficiency),” Pearson said.

Pearson said to help ELLs “we need services in place” instead of the “wait and see approach.”

“Some changes that I would like to see is for the academic advising office to think about employing some of the bilingual staff to work in their offices to make sure we meet the needs of different student populations,” Dang said.

For more information on Asian Pacific American Heritage Celebration Month visit

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