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Viewing Family Relations Through a Linguistic Lens: Symbolic Aspects

Viewing Family Relations Through a Linguistic Lens: Symbolic Aspects

 

Assignment should range around 450 words with a full citation, 1-inch margins, 12 pt font, Times New Roman

-Accomodation Theory

Attachment Theory

Viewing Family Relations Through a Linguistic Lens: Symbolic Aspects

of Language Maintenance in Immigrant Families

Michal Tannenbaum School of Education

Tel Aviv University, Israel

Immigration often involves language shifts, and dilemmas bearing on language maintenance. This article discusses some of the psychological implications of mother tongue maintenance and of complete language shift, especially in the com- munication between parents and children. The article suggests a novel perspective on language maintenance in immigrant families by drawing on attachment theory and discussing various aspects of language maintenance in relation to intimate family ex- periences. This qualitative study focused on the parents’ perspective on various is- sues related to their mother tongue and the influence of early experiences on their current language behavior with their children. Interviews were conducted with seven immigrant families living in Sydney, Australia. Central themes that emerged from their narratives, related to language and family relations in the past and at present, are analyzed and discussed in light of psychological motives and emotional aspects re- lated to language maintenance patterns in these families.

Language maintenance and language acquisition among immigrants from ethnolinguistic minorities are widely researched subjects, basically viewing the immigrants’ acquisition of the majority language as imperative. Language fluency is an integral part of the acculturation process and various studies point out the pos- itive relation between the immigrant’s well-being in terms of economic, academic, professional, or personal aspects, and language proficiency (e.g., Masgoret & Gardner, 1999; Weston, 1996). Acquiring a new language as part of the immigra- tion process often results in bilingualism, which researchers almost unanimously judge to be a positive phenomena, including such advantages as metalinguistic

THE JOURNAL OF FAMILY COMMUNICATION, 5(3), 229–252 Copyright © 2005, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Michal Tannenbaum, School of Ed- ucation, Tel Aviv University, Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv, Israel 69978. E-mail: [email protected]

awareness, improved school performance, cultural enrichment, and psychological resilience (e.g., Goodz, 1994; Hakuta & Diaz, 1985; Titone, 1989).

Language shift as part of the immigration process, however, is not a simple or technical act, and it does not reflect only the acquisition of a new language and the broadening of one’s horizons. The immigration process also involves loss on many levels, and language shift often involves language loss with all its attendant emo- tional, interactional, and psychological significance. Most of the studies exploring language maintenance and language shift among immigrants focus on characteris- tics of the ethnolinguistic group, on the language per se, or on demographic vari- ables associated with language maintenance (e.g., Butcher, 1995; Clyne & Kipp, 1997; De Vries, 1993; Giles, Bourhis, & Taylor, 1977; Taft & Cahill, 1989), and rarely address the emotional significance of this process. The few studies that do address language maintenance as associated with emotional aspects, self-identity issues, or internal representations of significant others, describe mainly clinical case studies, psychological theories, or personal literary narratives. Thus, Hoffman (1989) described the helplessness that accompanied the acquisition of a new lan- guage as part of her immigration experience stating, “mostly, the problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified. The words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue” (p. 106; see also Stengel, 1939). Grinberg and Grinberg (1989) described the mother tongue as containing the experiences of infancy, including memories and feelings related to first object relations, and as one of the most traditional components of culture, highly resistant to change. Based on his own experience after his arrival in England, Freud wrote to Raymond de Saussure the following: “one point that the emigrant feels so particularly painfully…is…the loss of the language in which one had lived and which one will never be able to replace with another” (quoted in Gay, 1988, p. 632). Mirsky posited that losing the mother tongue in immigration is ac- companied “by a deep sense of loss of self-identity and of internal objects” (1991, p. 620). Marcos, Eisma, and Guimon (1977) described bilingual patients who, dur- ing therapy, reported the experience of a “language-specific sense of self,” as if two persons existed, each operating in a separate language with its own value system, conflicts, and defense mechanisms. Stern (1986) described immigrants who felt they were betraying their mother tongue by having to shift to a new language. Of- ten, they were unable to describe their emotions and the world they had lost, feel- ing that the new language failed to apply to the old world. Confronted with a new, unintelligible language, immigrants may feel excluded, as a child who does not un- derstand the parents’ secret language (Grinberg & Grinberg, 1989), a feeling likely to elicit alienation, anger, or frustration. The dramatic implications entailed by a language shift may even be inferred from the “mother tongue” concept found in many languages (see also Akhtar, 1995; Amati-Mehler, Argentieri, & Canestri, 1990/1993; Fishman, 1997; Koplow & Messinger, 1990).

Studies exploring the main impact of immigration on family life indicate that certain aspects, such as identity conflicts, alienation, and intergenerational dis-

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cord, are uniquely magnified in the immigration process (Akhtar, 1995; Hong & Domokos-Cheng Ham, 1992; Ritsner & Ponizovsky, 1999). Children may also be faced with a conflict of loyalties, when their parents simultaneously expect them to acculturate and succeed while retaining their sense of tradition and family values (Gudykunst & Lee, 2001; Roer-Strier, 2000). In shifting to a new language, the younger generation may often be cut off from its roots, possibly leading to es- trangement between family members. Parents may feel unqualified to teach their children all the things parents usually teach, in transmitting to their children the cultural values and beliefs that the family and the group hold dear, and in support- ing the development of a strong sense of self or culture in their children (Koplow & Messinger, 1990; Wong-Fillmore, 1991). Gudykunst and Lee (2001), who focused on family communication in the context of ethnic and cultural identities, suggested that the greater the difference between parents and children in the emphasis they place on these identities, and the greater the gap between individuals and their fam- ilies, the greater the intergenerational conflict as well as the speech divergence when they communicate.

ATTACHMENT RELATIONS

Beyond their specific features, immigrant families share in the dynamics common to families in general. Attachment theory, which describes one dimension of these dynamics, is one of the most widely researched and applied theories of emotional development across cultures and circumstances. First developed by Bowlby (1969, 1973), this theory conceptualizes the tendency of human beings to form strong af- fectionate bonds with particular others, and also outlines diverse forms of emo- tional distress and personality disturbance. According to attachment theory, the in- fant, and later the toddler, develops internal working models of “self” and of “other” derived from the experience of the infant’s relationships with the care- givers. Two major types of attachment patterns may develop on the basis of these working models: secure and insecure (the latter including avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized modes of attachment). Individuals tend to interpret their experi- ences in a manner consistent with their existing internal working models, con- stantly tending to confirm these models throughout their lives (Ainsworth, 1990; Bowlby, 1969, 1973). Continuity in attachment modes is therefore expected throughout the life cycle (e.g., Klohnen & Bera, 1998; Meyers, 1998).1Although a

LANGUAGE MAINTENANCE AND FAMILY RELATIONS 231

1The focus on attachment theory is not incidental. The secure base phenomenon has been empha- sized by many other theorists, such as Erikson (1950), who coined the notion of “basic trust,” or Sandler (1985), who spoke of “background of safety.” Many psychoanalysts argue that the infant–caregiver re- lationship is grounded in the need for a relationship rather than on physical necessities (Fonagy, 1999). Both attachment theorists and several psychoanalysts see maternal (or other caregiver’s) sensitivity as a key issue in determining the quality of relationship regulation between mother and infant, as well as that of later relationships (Bowlby, 1969; Erikson, 1950; Winnicott, 1965).

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range of emotional reactions or gestures may indeed have different connotations in different cultures (Rothbaum, Weixz, Pott, Miyake, & Morelli, 2000), and al- though it is not assumed that family communication patterns are identical within or across ethnic groups (e.g., Gudykunst & Lee, 2001), research indicates that chil- dren, across cultures, become attached to their primary caregivers and basically display a similar range of behaviors in stress or comfort-seeking situations (e.g., Harwood, Miller, & Irizarry, 1995; Van IJzendoorn & Sagi, 1999).

Attachment relations may be assessed or categorized in several ways, depend- ing on the purpose of the assessment and on the age of the participants. Thus, the Strange Situation Technique (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978) is usually applied when assessing attachment modes in infants; the Attachment Q-Sets is used with toddlers (Waters & Deane, 1985); the Separation Anxiety Test is used during latency and adolescence (Slough & Greenberg, 1990; Tannenbaum & Howie, 2002); and the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI; George, Kaplan, & Main, 1985) is used among adults.

An interesting concept related to attachment relationships is the “reflective self” (Fonagy, Steele, & Steele, 1991; Fonagy, Steele, Steele, Moran, & Higgitt, 1991). Fonagy, Steele, and Steele (1991) associated the coherence with which adults re- member their childhood, or their ability to talk about their past experiences in the AAI, and their level of insight. Insight is affected by their early (attachment) rela- tions with their parents, and in turn, affects their level of understanding and respon- siveness to their own child. This link may be understood as emerging from an inter- nal sense of coherence, structured at early stages of development in response to parental sensitivity to the infant’smentalworld.Theparents’ability“toobserve their own mental functioning, to have a plausible view of themselves and their objects as human being, thinking, feeling, wishing, believing, wanting, and desiring” (Fonagy, Steele, & Steele, 1991, p. 215), is thus considered to have direct implications for the parents’ relationship with their infant. Insight, then, is related to early secure rela- tionships, as well as to secure relationships with one’s own children.

These clinical examples, literary insights, and theoretical assumptions, suggest that immigrants often view their mother tongue as a symbol of their past, their fam- ily of origin, childhood landscapes, familial myths, and early memories. As such, language maintenance or language shift may reflect complex emotional processes both at the individual and at the familial levels, and even at the level of the group.

This study aims to enrich our understanding of the internal world of immigrants regarding their linguistic experiences, and to explore the potential range of associ- ations that language may hold for different people. For this purpose, I adopted a qualitative method that enables one to generate hypotheses to explain various phe- nomena by relying on the participants’ interpretations of their own reality (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Smith, 1997). Qualitative research begins from a specific stance that helps researchers thematize their data and focus on essentials in light of a spe- cific conceptual framework. A conceptual frame of reference may be useful in sys-

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temizing hypotheses generation and data collection, helping to structure the quali- tative analysis (Alasuutari, 1995; Hayes, 1997).

The basic conceptual assumption in this study is that language is associated with emotions, and therefore, language shift or language maintenance may be as- sociated with psychological aspects—how, to what extent, and in what directions are some of the questions the study asks. In other words, the narrative accounts were not used to test a preexistent, fully formed theory; instead, they were used as a basis for developing one, allowing for the discovery of new and unpredictable as- pects (similar to Smith, 1997).

These issues have also been the subject of quantitative studies, as reported else- where (Guardado, 2002; Tannenbaum & Howie, 2002). Yet, qualitative research methods were viewed as better suited for exploring the personal, subjective interpre- tationsof realityat the focusof this study.AsAlasuutari (1995)emphasized, thegoal of qualitative research should not necessarily be to produce practical information about society but rather to create a body of critical literature that may contribute a new perspective to the investigation of social or psychological phenomena.

METHOD

Participants

The study relied on the analysis of case studies (Creswell, 1998; Smith, 1997). Seven immigrant families living in Sydney, Australia, were interviewed using a semi-structured interview. The families had lived in Sydney for up to 15 years, and, in all of them, both parents shared the same mother tongue, which was not English. All the parents were fluent in English, so that speaking to their children in their mother tongue was a matter of choice rather than necessity.2 All parents were in their late 30s and early 40s, middle class, educated, and professional. Table 1 pres- ents the main characteristics of the participant families.

Procedure

Interviews lasted around 2 hr with each family, in two sessions. Questions were de- liberately phrased openly and were mainly intended as cues for the participants with minimum constraint or comments by the interviewer (e.g., Denzin & Lincoln,

LANGUAGE MAINTENANCE AND FAMILY RELATIONS 233

2Participants’ names were changed to protect anonymity. All interviews were conducted in English except for two interviews with Israeli families, conducted in Hebrew. It could be argued that, to maxi- mize comparability, it would have been advisable to conduct all interviews in English. Given that He- brew is the researcher’s mother tongue, however, it was decided that any methodological advantages that might accrue from speaking English with Hebrew-speaking participants would be outweighed by the artificiality of failing to use a common language.

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1994). Each interview started with a general, open statement: “Please tell me about your immigration experience. I am especially interested in hearing how you deal with language issues.” From then on, the interview’s pace and content were dic- tated mainly by the participants. If the participants failed to mention specific issues altogether, however, direct questions were inserted to ensure that all participants did address the central concerns of this study, such as the following:

• What language(s) do you speak at home—between yourselves, with your children, with your extended family? What language(s) do your children speak with you? Why do you think this is so?

• What are your emotional associations with your mother tongue? • Can you tell me about significant incidents of your children using your

mother tongue rather than English? • Can you think of any childhood experiences that, more than others, affected

your decision to immigrate? Can you think of special incidents in your own childhood that affected your later linguistic choices?

• How would you describe your current relationship with your children? • Do you think language maintenance has any relevance to family relations?

The interviews were conducted with both parents together, although in some cases, the children were around for parts of the interview. Overall, children were

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TABLE 1 Main Characteristics of the Interviewed Families

The Parents Country of Origin

Parents’ Mother Tongue

Children’s Ages and Gender

Years in Australia

Language Maintenance?

Thomas and Koni Germany German 10 (m), 8 (f)

7 Y

Sasha and Lina Russia Russian 12 (m), 9 (m)

15 N

Yoav and Nurit Israel Hebrew 12 (f), 9 (f), 5 (m)

6 Y

Jose and Sofia Mexico Spanish 8 (m) 11/14 N

Oded and Tamar Israel Hebrew 8 (f), 5(m), 3 (f)

12 Y

Mario and Rosa Argentina Spanish 8 (f), 4 (f) 3 Y

Roberto and Julietta Italy Italian 7 (f), 5 (m) 2 Y, N

Note. (m) = male; (f) = female; Y = yes; N = no.

not active participants in terms of content related to interview issues, although when possible, notes were added in regard to parent–children interactions, explicit input of children, actual language use, and overt emotions.

With the family’s permission, interviews were taped and transcribed verbatim. Transcripts were read and reared several times to classify themes emerging as cen- tral. These themes were then allocated to several categories including language, emotions, family relations, childhood history, and the immigration experience. The purpose was to identify recurring patterns across cases with the aim of identi- fying associations between language issues and familial-emotional ones.

TALES FROM THE SUITCASE:3 IMMIGRANT FAMILIES TALK ABOUT LANGUAGE, IMMIGRATION, AND BEYOND

Thomas and Koni

The family came from Germany due to Thomas’s work, and has been living in Australia for 7 years. Thomas and Koni have two children: a 10-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl.

Koni remembers her own childhood as a succession of conflicts with her mother, whom she describes as a highly respected woman “with lots of friends and admirers” and the central figure of the extended family. Her basic feelings as a child were of being useless and unappreciated by her mother, always the “black sheep” of the family. She was considered the most rebellious child, “the one who always got into trouble.” She was the most problematic of her siblings at school, suffered from attention difficulties, and never received more than average grades. She describes her father as weak and living always in her mother’s shade, although “with a golden heart.” Her mother had dominated the household, even to the extent of detaching her husband from his family of origin. She remembers hearing her fa- ther, on many nights, criticizing her mother about her interaction with Koni, saying she was too tough with her and should not argue with her constantly. She describes herself as always much closer to her father than to her mother, who was “some- times a real stranger…Worse than that—as if she wanted me to fail.”

Thomas comes from a middle-class family with one older sister. He was rather laconic in his descriptions, appearing much more reserved and distant than Koni, but the overall impression was that of stable and close relationships within his fam- ily. He reported that they talked regularly on the phone, his parents had recently visited and stayed with them for several weeks, and both mentioned that Koni also has a good relationship with his parents, who somehow function as “substitute par- ents,” as Thomas commented.

LANGUAGE MAINTENANCE AND FAMILY RELATIONS 235

3The idea for this title came from an Australian television program dealing with immigrant families.

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Thomas and Koni met in high school and have been together since. They always thought of living far from the family, in another city or in the countryside. When an opportunity for work in Australia came up, they decided to give it a try. They live in a remote suburb of Sydney, in a big house surrounded by a large wooded area.

They talk about their children with great affection. Koni is highly involved with their school activities and often volunteers to assist in various events. She enthusi- astically describes the last family trip, when they went camping for a week with several other families. Thomas also speaks quite a lot about the children, relating many details about their school, friends, and hobbies.

Although they both explicitly claim it is good for their well-being (especially Koni’s) to be far from Koni’s family, they both feel closely attached to their coun- try and culture. The house is full of German books and music (for children too), they have many German friends, and they keep in touch with friends in Germany. They consciously relate to the issue of language. Both state that being able to relate to their children in their mother tongue is extremely important, and at home they speak German almost exclusively. As Koni says

the fact that my own mother was bad to me does not stain the whole of German cul- ture…I need to make it better for my own children, but there is no way I could have done it in another language…I want them to be part of my world for good and bad, and I cannot see any way to do it in English.

Both also added that this enables them to relate more directly and more easily to their children, who are able to communicate with the extended family in Germany, and it feels more natural for Koni and Thomas to hear German at home. As Koni says, “sometimes this English is like a mask she [her daughter] puts on…It’s like a different person.”

Sasha and Lina

Sasha and Lina came to Australia separately from the former USSR, 15 years be- fore the interview. They met at a university, married, and had two boys, now 12 and 9. Both stated they had come to Australia mainly hoping to live a different, free, and apolitical life. Lina added that living in an undemocratic society had always been hard for her. Lacking access to knowledge and to what happens in the world, with information always being censored, “not having freedom of speech, of cre- ation, even of thought,” were aspects of life she had always detested. “Also, the in- doctrination dripping on you wherever you are, especially at school…I didn’t want to raise my children that way.” They both added that, economically, life in Austra- lia was very different. “Not that we are rich here,” said Sasha, “but at least you have your own space for yourself…there you often have to live with some other families in the same small flat.”

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Although they often spoke English when other friends were around, when by themselves, they spoke mainly Russian. When their first child began speaking, his first language was Russian. On this issue, they note the following:

we decided to start speaking more English with each other and with the boy, in order for him to be an “Australian.” After all, we came here to live a different kind of life…and hearing our baby speaking Russian seemed wrong at the time.

After several months, their son gradually shifted to English and today, their com- munication with him and with their second son is basically in English.

When the focus of the interview shifted to the emotional implications of this use of language for their relationships with the boys and with each other, Lina nodded, as if this issue was easy for her to address. She said that, after her father’s death several years earlier, she had started therapy, seeking to understand their relation- ship better. The experience had, in turn, helped her understand her deeper reasons for leaving Russia and become aware of other layers in her personality: “It’s not just politics that brought me here.” She said that her relationships with her own family in Russia had never been really close, although no one had ever admitted this, and it was easier for her parents, as well as for herself, to deal with her immi- gration as a move toward a freer or easier place rather than acknowledge any diffi- culties within the family:

I realized that I had hoped to have a completely different life, a different family. I didn’t want to raise my boys like my parents had raised me…I was never very close to my brother and sister, and never knew much about my parents’ own life. They did not tell me much about themselves, about their problems, about their own childhood. We were just living together from day to day, but actually did not know much about each other.

Lina added that Sasha’s family is also problematic, and although he did not deny Lina’s notions about his family, it was more difficult for him to elaborate in detail. In the context of their relationships with their families, however, both said it was probably no accident they now speak mainly English between themselves as well as with their sons, “as if speaking this other language helps to make a different kind of family. You know, I even used to sing lullabies in English to the boys,” said Lina. Most of their friends are not Russians, and Russian culture plays a limited role in their present life.

On rare occasions, they find themselves telling the boys stories about their own childhood. Both, however, say they find it more and more difficult to do this, be- cause the boys do not seem interested or keen on drawing close to their world. As Sasha says, “they don’t ask us much about ourselves anyway,” to which Lina added, “I guess I can say that this trick [i.e., shifting to English] didn’t really work.

LANGUAGE MAINTENANCE AND FAMILY RELATIONS 237

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I tried to do it differently, but I often find myself very frustrated in my relationship with them.”

Yoav and Nurit

The family arrived from Israel due to Yoav’s job, and have been in Australia 6 years, although they had never intended staying this long. Yoav works full time and travels a lot, whereas Nurit works casually and spends most of her time at home and with the children. They have two girls, ages 12 and 8, and a boy of 5.

Nurit’s parents are Holocaust survivors. After the war, they emigrated to Israel and set

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