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Immigration, Acculturation and Bilingualism

Author: Katarzyna Litak, M.D.

Introduction: Minnesota, with a population of approximately 5.7 million, encompasses a diverse blend of European heritage. According to the 2015 US Census Bureau, the predominant ancestries in descending order are German, Norwegian, Irish, Swedish, English, and Polish, with an estimated 257,653 self-identified Polish Americans. The immigration of Poles to Minnesota primarily occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coinciding with the peak period of European immigration to the United States. Many of the early Polish settlers who arrived in Minnesota in the mid-1800s hailed from the Kashubian and Silesian regions. A significant number of Silesian immigrants made their way to Minnesota before Bismarck's Kulturkampf of 1872 and prior to the unification of the German Kingdoms into the German Empire (also known as the Second Reich) in 1871. Notably, the writings of German republican Eduard Pelz, who extolled Minnesota as a promised land, and publications like "News about Minnesota" in the 1860s, with over 150,000 copies printed, contributed to the attraction of these immigrants to the region.

Minnesota has remained a destination for immigrants from Poland over the years. Between 1981 and 1990, the United States received nearly 34,000 asylum seekers and refugees from Poland. The composition of recent Polish immigrants has evolved since the fall of communism in 1989. Compared to earlier Polish arrivals in the United States, the newer Polish immigrants are less likely to have become naturalized citizens, as indicated by the 2000 US census data. During the period from 1981 to 1990, 56 percent of Polish immigrants attained US citizenship by the year 2000. Moreover, over 40 percent of Polish migrants had not completed high school in 1980. However, by 1990, this percentage had decreased to 26 percent, and by 2000, it had dwindled further to only 17 percent, reflecting positive educational trends among Polish immigrants.

Present-day immigrants are often professionals who are proficient in the English language. Nevertheless, the acculturation difficulties persist, especially when the support for maintaining heritage culture and language is limited, adding to the stress of immigration.

“I remember looking down from the plane. It was all white. Some birds were flying by. I felt really sad, so sad. I thought, ‘God, how did we get here?’ And there we were, two bags, a little one, and twenty dollars in my pocket—what's next?" -Lucyna D. who immigrated to Minnesota as a political refugee in the 1980's.

Immigrants who arrive in the US may face limited resources and opportunities and many challenges, such as social disintegration, loss of extended family and community support, loss of daily family routine, loss of jobs, and shifting family roles. Immigration often involves leaving behind familiar surroundings, family, friends, and support networks. Immigrants, especially refugees, may have trouble trusting others. The loss of social connections and the challenges of building new relationships can contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

There are many shifts and fractures, including the disintegration of social networks, loss of extended family and community support, loss of daily family routine, loss of jobs, and shifting family roles.

Many immigrants and refugees avoid seeking help due to a lack of trust. Before they immigrated, they may have experienced many extremely stressful events because of political or religious oppression, war, migration, and resettlement. It is difficult to define all of the types of events they have suffered because refugee trauma often precedes the primary war-related event that causes them to flee. Consequently, many people do not receive appropriate medical and social support due to a lack of awareness or limited ability to develop trusting interpersonal relationships, which are critical to resettlement and healing.

The hardest time? It was the beginning and the language. You just don't understand, you don't know what you want, and you don't know people,” Marian P who immigrated to Minnesota as a political refugee in the 1980's.

An integral part of acculturation is the language acquisition. Immigrant language acquisition and acculturation is a complex process. Language acquisition is how individuals acquire their first language or additional languages. It involves the development of linguistic skills, including listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Language acquisition typically occurs during early childhood but can also occur later in life. Many factors affect language development and immigrant children that are influenced by individual characteristics, home environment, school, and social settings.

Bilingualism and language acquisition are closely related. When individuals are exposed to multiple languages from an early age, they have the potential to become bilingual. In this case, they acquire both languages simultaneously and develop proficiency in both. Bilingualism can also be acquired later in life through formal language instruction or immersion in a different linguistic environment. The value set on learning a heritage language rather than replacement leads to bilingualism.

Language acquisition and bilingualism are essential factors that substantially affect cognitive functioning, ethnic identity, and social development. The younger age, motivation, aptitude, family values placed on heritage language and bilingualism, parental education, and school support are helpful. According to research, bilingual individuals have better physical and mental health. Bilingualism can also provide cultural and social benefits by allowing individuals to engage with different communities, cultures, and perspectives.

I included quotes from present-day Polish immigrants who participated in the Kalejdoskop Polski MN project (2021-2022) and described their immigration experience and acculturation difficulties.

Further reading:

In Polish:

In English:


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