Recognizing Generation 1.5

by on November 7, 2012 in Fresh From the Field with No Comments »



When I was growing up, there was no Dora the Explorer and no Ni-Hao Kai-Lan.
The cartoons of my childhood communicated solely in English. Ren and Stimpy, Doug, and the Rugrats were not bilingual. I, on the other hand, had to jump between two languages and two cultures.

As an American-born child of immigrant parents, I learned English and Spanish at the same time. I used English in school and Spanish at home and in my community. I didn’t need an ESL education, but neither did I have a strong command of the English language. I wasn’t able to fully immerse myself in one language or the other, or encouraged to mix the two like Dora and Kai-Lan do today.

Dora and Kai-Lan’s huge popularity comes as no surprise when we look at recent diversity trends in America. Current national estimates indicate that ethnic minority groups will make up an estimated 65% of the growth of the U.S population through the year 2020 (Spainer, 2004).

Colleges and universities are seeing the effects of this population trend in changing student demographics. One particular student population, made up of people who share my experience with language, likely a result of the diversification of America, is at the forefront of discussions in higher education. This student group embodies a mixture of traits from both first and second generation immigrants. They were either born outside of the U.S or immigrated at a young age, or were born in the U.S to first generation immigrants who spoke a language other than English at home. Their prior educational experiences vary, but overall, they’ve spent some, if not all, of their high school years in the U.S and have a solid background in American culture and have been speaking English for a number of years. Educational researchers have referred to this unique group of students as Generation 1.5 (Rumbaut & Ima, 1988).

Generation 1.5 students are U.S-educated English language learners who are often pigeon holed into categories that don’t define who they are and misinterpret their learning needs. They are neither remedial or ESL. Generation 1.5 writers, “with backgrounds in U.S culture and schooling, are distinct from international students and other newcomers who have been the subject of most ESL [scholarship], while at the same time these students’ status as English language learners is often treated as incidental or even misconstrued as under preparation in writing in mainstream college composition and basic writing courses” (Harklau, Losey and Siegal, 1999).

The growing presence of Generation 1.5 in the college classroom has warranted recent pedagogical discussion and inquiry. Educators want to understand the complexities of 1.5ers in order to properly cater to their learning needs. For example, unique to Generation 1.5 is the loss of the home language as collateral for learning English. In my case, with rigorous practice, I was able to master academic English. But it came at a price. The more attention I put into English, the worse my proficiency became in Spanish. Research shows a growth in this trend among Generation 1.5 students. With the right kind of help, I might have been able to excel at academic English without becoming “academically illiterate” in Spanish.

Continued awareness of the existence of Generation 1.5 will help educators develop instruction to help these students become successful college writers who won’t have to give up their home languages to excel in English. 1.5ers will someday be able to move from language to language and culture to culture as easily as Dora and Kai-Lan.

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