We May All Speak English, But We Don’t Always Speak the Same Language
By Vidisha Patel
When families emigrate to the United States, they come in a myriad of ways. Some families come together, and their intention is to move the entire family to a new place. Others send just one adult, with the intention of staying temporarily, perhaps for work or study, to return home in a few years. Others come one at a time, sending for other family members as time and money permit. Each of these styles of immigration impacts the experience of assimilation into the new culture. Giftedness in the mix of the immigration adds additional challenges.
Giftedness is defined differently across the globe. In some cultures, where all children are believed to have the ability to excel, giftedness is not considered an attribute. Sometimes there is a strong work and education ethic where children are driven to succeed through hard work and long hours of study. And, in other cultures, giftedness is identified and addressed with differentiation.
Consider the following part of a journal entry written by a gifted teen from a first generation immigrant family (see the end of the article for the full entry):
I want to have friends and do things with them. I want to be able to invite people over without my parents grilling them about their SAT scores. I want to drive places by myself. I am old enough and I have my license. They let me get my license so they could tell everyone that I have it. But now, I can’t drive anywhere by myself. When I ask to go out .they say sure but they have to call the parents and verify everything. They won’t let me drive with my friends and they insist on sitting in the car and waiting for me if I ever do go to a movie or friend’s house. It is SO embarrassing! Worse they want me to have my friends over. Then they spend the entire time grilling them on colleges, SAT scores and even more personal questions all the while trying to ply them with our native food. I don’t even like to eat that food.
Working with culturally diverse gifted populations poses several challenges that are not readily apparent. Sometimes the characteristics of the culture mask aspects of giftedness, and, conversely, those same characteristics prevent us from understanding the gifted student.
Several things are worth keeping in mind when working across cultures with gifted children.
Start with yourself. Understanding your cultural heritage and the assumptions that stem from that background is important. The culture we are raised in defines many of our judgments and values. It creates the lens through which we view the world. So, when we understand the perspective from which we are basing our own expectations, we are better able to understand others. From that vantage point, it is easier to recognize the differences. It is also important to remember that you don’t have to accept the differences, but merely recognize and acknowledge them.
Seek to understand the culture. Learning about the cultures of the children you are working with will provide the basis for understanding the lens through which they view the world. This would include understanding their story of migration and the specific traditions and values with which they are raised at home. Is English spoken at home, or is another language the primary means of communication? How long has the family been in the United States? To what degree has the family chosen to assimilate into the culture? In many immigrant families, the child is the only one who speaks English and has the responsibility for being the spokesperson for the family. Meeting the entire family can also be helpful in this regard.
Strive for curiosity. Most people appreciate others’ interest in them. Ask questions of the child and the family to understand and appreciate the culture most fully. Showing an interest builds a stronger relationship that, in turn, allows the child to feel more comfortable, and helps to bridge any cultural gaps that may exist.
Observe as much as possible. So much information can be gleaned through observation. Words are not necessary. A visit to the home or a meeting with the family can reveal much about the cultural context within which the child is living. Who comes to the meeting? Is the father in charge? Are siblings involved in the conversation? Does the child have a say in what activities they choose to participate in? While the same information can be gleaned through asking questions, the responses may differ from what you observe.
Listen more than talk. Active listening, rather than talking, provides better clues to what is going on in a child’s mind. Sometimes, the words that are not spoken but are implied provide more insight. With active listening, you allow yourself the time to hear what the child is really saying. Watching body language is also helpful in determining if the words expressed are genuine, or said only because the child feels that that is the “right” thing to say.
Always admit when you don’t know. When working across cultures, it is difficult to know and understand all the traditions. It is okay to admit when you don’t know. In fact, most people are pleased when someone shows a genuine interest and wants to learn about their culture.
Recognize that all English is not the same. English spoken as a first language is different from English spoken as a second, third, or even fourth language. The context in which English is spoken is based in the culture in which it was learned. For example, those who have studied English in school but have not practiced in a conversational setting may come across as direct and cold. They may not be familiar with colloquial expressions and may misunderstand what is being asked of them. Also, some people may speak English, but think in their mother tongue. This can cause delays in response or a misunderstanding in expressions.
By becoming more culturally aware and taking the time to understand our own cultural lens we create stronger relationships with those around us. And as we strive to understand and honor the differences among us, we create a stronger platform from which to move forward.
The Full Journal Entry Referenced in the Column
I never thought of myself as an actor but today I realized that I am, and a good one at that! My friend told me that I was so ‘put together’ and mature. She said that even though she knows I have had some challenges in my family life I always seem to manage it well and no one is the wiser. She wondered why I don’t need to reach out to others and how I can juggle all the struggles myself. Does it really look that simple from the outside? Can’t anyone see the pain that I feel? Am I that masterful at hiding my struggles? I have been taught that what happens at home stays at home. Family matters are not for ‘outsiders’ and by that I mean anyone other than the people living under our roof. I am not even to talk to my grandparents because that would be betraying my parents’ confidence. They don’t want to appear to be ‘bad’ parents! Not that they are all bad mind you but they are not perfect. Is anyone? Why am I meant to get is all ‘right’ and they can err and be human? And college? The pressure is so much that I almost don’t want to bother to try anymore. That wouldn’t do either. Everyone goes to college and a ‘ good’ one at that. No community college for me. Who’s to say that might not be the best option for me? I could spend my time working on developing my paintings. But no, a proper young man doesn’t make his life work as a ‘painter’ (a.k.a. artist). No, I have to go to a top ten college, study higher math and science and become some doctor. How many more doctors does this world need anyway? And why don’t my parents see that life as a teenager isn’t all about studying? I want to have friends and do things with them. I want to be able to invite people over without my parents grilling them about their SAT scores. I want to drive places by myself. I am old enough and I have my license. They let me get my license so they could tell everyone that I have it. But now, I can’t drive anywhere by myself. When I ask to go out they say sure but they have to call the parents and verify everything. They won’t let me drive with my friends and they insist on sitting in the car and waiting for me if I ever do go to a movie or friend’s house. It is SO embarrassing! Worse they want me to have my friends over. Then they spend the entire time grilling them on colleges, SAT scores and even more personal questions all the while trying to ply them with our native food. I don’t even like to eat that food. The flavors are just so foreign to me. So I am learning that it is just best to sit at home on weekends and evenings and finish my work. The sooner I get out of this family the better. When I get to college, I will be free and no one will be hanging over my head.
Even at school the teachers ask me how I am and I say ‘good’ or ‘fine’. They always single me out as the model student who completes the projects early and always know the answer. Who wouldn’t if all they did was stay home and study. Don’t the teachers understand that I don’t like all that attention? The other kids make fun of me and call me the teacher’s pet. Doesn’t anyone see that it is because I am expected to do my work ahead and that my parents force me to do it that the work gets done? It’s bad enough that no one understands at home but then to come to school and find that I can’t fit in here either…
There is one person who understands. She said that I should go and talk to the guidance counselor. But if I do that I will blow my family’s cover and I can’t do that. Still I did try to go once and it was a disaster. I couldn’t look the counselor in the eye and she thought I was being disrespectful. Where I come from looking of authority someone in the eye is considered to be rude! Then she asked me all sorts of personal questions but I couldn’t answer honestly because then I would be revealing my family’s personal business. The counselor ended up calling my parents and then they were so mad that I had gone to someone outside the family. They wanted to know what was so bad about my life and how much they had given up to bring me to this country and give me all the opportunities that they had provided. The whole thing was more trouble than I could have ever imagined!
* * * * * * * *
Dr. Vidisha Patel has a doctorate of Education in Counseling Psychology and practices as a therapist in Sarasota, Florida, where much of her work is with gifted children and their families, with a focus on stress and anxiety. She is licensed to teach stress management techniques. Dr. Patel is active in her local community and regularly speaks at conferences, schools, and parenting groups throughout the community, state and nationally. She has worked as a consultant for Florida State University training primary caregivers on infant mental health. She also works with teen parents in schools. Dr. Patel’s professional affiliations include The World Association of Infant Mental Health, The Zero to Three Society, Sarasota County Medical Society Alliance, and Pine View School Band Association. Dr. Patel holds an MBA from Columbia University and worked in finance on Wall Street and overseas before obtaining her doctorate in psychology. Dr. Patel is the mother of two gifted children.