12 July 2018

Bilingual Education and Cultural Identity Development

Strong cultural identity is often perceived as vital for school adaptation in the psychology literature, as it strongly relates to students’ mental well-being and self-esteem. Addressing this issue, studies on acculturation have been conducted through observing behavioral patterns and perspective change of overseas students experiencing acculturation. The relationship between acculturation and identity is often discussed in terms of the complications between the need to adapt and the need to maintain one’s cultural identity.

A successful case in handling this issue can be found at a Japanese International University (IU). Looking into choices of acculturation strategies and cultural identity modification of IU overseas students, this essay discusses how the IU bilingual educational system and multicultural environment have makes it possible to both encourage cultural identity development and maintaining strong sense of belonging of the students.

The bilingual educational system at IU offers opportunities to choose classes in Japanese or English, as 90% of the lectures are offered in both languages. The number of Japanese and overseas students are balanced. Overseas students are provided with an opportunity to study in Japan without Japanese language proficiency and easily immerse themselves in a culturally diverse environment by utilizing English as the common language. Overseas students on the IU campus are not compelled to participate in frequent interactions with the Japanese community neither informally nor academically. Instead, they are encouraged to voluntarily participating in cultural exchange activities to enhance mutual understanding between cultures. Hence, the amount of exposure to Japanese culture mainly depends on the will of individuals, for which IU distinguishes itself from other campuses where overseas students separated from or are obliged to conform to the dominant culture.

Observations on the background of IU inspired my research questions, that in such a low-pressure environment, what acculturation strategies overseas students tend to prefer, and how the living-abroad experience might bring about changes to their cultural identity. My research at IU utilized in-depth interviews conducted among ten IU overseas students of six different nationalities. Interviewees were asked about their relationship towards home and the host community, how well they adapted to Japanese culture, and their opinions upon the need for a firm sense of cultural identity. The interviews were analyzed using the model of acculturation strategies by Berry (2005), according to assimilation, marginalization, separation and integration.

The number of students who preferred assimilation as the acculturation strategy (5 in 10) significantly exceeded those who chose other strategies. Also, most students (7 in 10) experienced changes in their cultural identity, which were identified through signs of reinforcement or debilitation of their belongingness to home culture.

This finding of acculturation strategy was somewhat surprising, as I expected that, above all, assimilation would be least potential to be chosen. There are three reasons for my assumption. First, due to IU equal population between Japanese and internationals, and its bilingual educational system, overseas students are not under pressure to participate in Japanese communities. Second, a wide range of student circles, activities and multicultural events offered students the freedom to make decisions about with whom they wish to associate. Third, Japan is still a relatively conformity oriented and homogeneous society, where acceptance of non-domestics is only very recently encouraged. Therefore, it was expected that overseas students would be more likely to, either reside comfortably in their home community or join other international communities, rather than try to immerse into the Japanese environment.

However, if we perceive IU and the opportunities it offers to overseas students under a different light, it is comprehensible why assimilation is the chosen strategy. An active multicultural environment with no pressure to conform to the host culture seems to have, counter-intuitively, attracted the curiosity of a young generation who are eager to explore the world, to live life to the fullest through unique experiences. This thought is evident in many interviews, expressing the enthusiasm of students in experiencing different cultures and understanding new perspectives. As one interviewee noted, "I think that curiosity really gets the best of us, and keeps us hunting for more," while another suggested "when you really get to know people from other cultures and the way they live their lives like, you get so attached."

The number of students who associate frequently with their home community (3/10), as opposed to those who have experienced identity modification (7/10), was very significant. Rather than seeking comfort in their familiar surroundings, students are more interested in immersing themselves, firstly into the host culture, then to the plethora of cultures in IU; under which light they engage in the inner journey of reconstructing cultural identity. That leads us to a crucial question of whether IU, and universities like it, would soon develop into a new "melting pot" where the clear distinction of cultural identity is gradually blurred, and a strong attachment to home community may even become undesirable.

This reminds us of the redeemed concept of assimilation, used by dominant cultural groups, as the means to "save" the minorities from cultural backwardness. In IU, the cultural minorities are eager to liberate themselves from the limitation of inherited and national beliefs and values, which can ironically be perceived as the "backwardness" in a global era. Many therefore may wish to "redeem" their rigid perspectives into a more flexible, global and acceptant mindset towards cultural alternatives. The difference is that IU minorities willfully and actively engage in assimilation, with the common goal to develop themselves as successful global citizens.

The bilingual educational system and multicultural environment that IU provides can be seen as a successful example for universities aiming to make students "feel at home" in a foreign country. It can transform the "foreign" into the "familiar" environment for overseas students through utilizing English as the common language. Thus, the IU environment can resolve students’ psychological issues rooted in a lack in belongingness. This is achieved through replacing the need to belong to a home community with the need to redeem oneself from inherited cultural limitations and reach out to the larger entity, the multicultural community. In that sense, IU is succeeding in granting students opportunities for cultural identity development and global understanding.

However, regarding the issue of cultural preservation, there are also risks which can be seen from the system. It is possible that IU might shape incoming cultural groups into outgoing "culturally-modified" individuals who eschew the need to classify themselves with established groups, and who instead are more eager to continuously reshape their identity according to their recreated reality. In the future, this may heavily contribute to the loss of cultural identities, and result in a homogeneous global society, where cultural boundaries are further blurred and the conventional concept of cultural identity is perceived as mere "backwardness."

[Phan Ha Yen Nhi graduated in 2017 from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, majoring in Culture, Society and Media, and she is currently a graduate student at Sophia University in Tokyo. This essay is based on fieldwork she conducted in Japan.]

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