Hyeyoung JO

Thesis: Negotiating ethnic identity: Korean Americans in college Korean language classes (2000)


This study investigates how second generation Korean-American students form and transform their senses of ethnicity through their participation in Korean language classes based on a year-long ethnographic study of the Korean language classes at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. These classes were largely populated by second- and 1.5-generation Korean Americans. From these Korean-American college students, who “successfully” proceeded through the American educational system, my study shows that becoming an English speaker does not necessarily mean the loss of ethnic identity, and that learning Korean (a “heritage” language) does not necessarily lead to homogeneous ethnic identity formation. Although the classroom is certainly a place in which language knowledge is imparted to students, much classroom activity utilizes words and grammatical points as semantic mediators of culture, history, and even politics. My ethnography focuses on the micro-practices of language teaching and learning in order to explore these interactions, and thereby take up identity formation and transformation.

Although “heritage” (or “ethnic”) language has often been taken up as a symbol for group maintenance, my study shows that actual interaction with the language is complicatedly and heterogeneously experienced among the group members, especially in relation to the ethnic identity formation process. Characteristics of the Korean classes contribute to Korean-American students’ ethnic identity formation processes in several ways. This is because this “ethnic” space contains complicated and contradictory characteristics, resulting from its complex mixture of class participants, its institutional location, and its national and transnational situation (Chapter 4). Korean-American students participating in Korean language classes constantly negotiate their sense of ethnic identity by interacting with social meanings initiated from words, passages, illustrations, and texts (Chapter 5); perceiving and positioning complicated forms and styles of Korean language, which become legitimated or de-legitimated against a “native” “standard” language (Chapter 6); and facing classmates’ speech presentations caricaturing “Koreanness” out of various diasporic stories, at the crossroads of traditional, ideal cultural traits and transnational, contemporary cultural flows from Korea (Chapter 7). These multiple modes are interconnected by different personal beliefs and theories of ethnic identity and language (Chapter 3), complicating their views and horizons on diaspora, meaning of homeland, and Korean ethnicity.