Returning Home
Inside California State University, Fullerton
February 20, 2007

By Debra Cano Ramos
Korean-Born Educator Researches Perceptions of Language and Culture

Korean-born Grace Cho knows the value of keeping her
native language alive and holding onto her
centuries-old culture.

“Developing one’s ‘heritage,’ or family, language
helps individuals retain their ethnic identity.
Knowing two languages and cultures also helps to
minimize intergenerational conflicts within families,”
said Cho, associate professor of secondary education
who specializes in language and literacy.

Contrary to popular opinion, immigrants to the U.S.
are acquiring English rapidly, but at the same time,
they are losing their native or “heritage” language,
Cho said.

“Studies have shown that maintaining one’s heritage
language, in addition to learning English, has
cognitive, social and cultural benefits.”
Cho’s current research has shown that immigrant
children lose a great deal when their heritage
language is not developed. They lose the means by
which to gain the wisdom and life experiences of their
parents, their elders and their community. Further,
noted Cho, developing one’s heritage language ensures
strong parent-child communication.

“It is an excellent investment for both the individual
and society,” said the mother of a 4-year-old who
wants her American-born daughter to speak Korean — and
to help other immigrant children in this country keep
their “heritage language.”

“It’s important to me that my daughter speak the
Korean language and learn about her culture. Besides
the practical, career-related and cognitive advantages
of being bilingual, developing Korean will increase my
daughter’s respect for her heritage culture and
provide her with a healthy sense of biculturalism.”

As a Korea Foundation field research fellow, Cho has
embarked on a research project to determine the most
effective ways to promote the understanding of one’s
roots, language and ethnicity. The Korea Foundation is
affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in
South Korea.

This semester — while on sabbatical — Cho is
conducting research preliminary to a three-month stay
in the Korean capital of Seoul, and Busan, the
country’s second largest city, to conduct field
research. It will be the first time in 10 years that
she visited Korea where she has extended family.

Researching Perceptions
Cho will collect data on the perceptions of Korean
Americans visiting Korea in regard to their heritage,
homeland, culture and heritage language maintenance.
She will tackle questions such as “Did visiting Korea
increase their cultural awareness and the likelihood
of their intention to practice and use the Korean
language?” and “Does visiting Korea promote cultural
understanding and appreciation leading to
understanding one’s roots and ethnicity?”

She also will be observing short- and long-term
language and cultural exchange programs to determine
their effectiveness in promoting the Korean language
and culture for second-generation Korean Americans.

Victoria Costa, chair and professor of secondary
education, believes Cho’s research promises to be
important in both the U.S. and Korea. “It is an
exciting and innovative approach to understanding
issues associated with heritage language learning.

“Korean Americans are one of the most rapidly growing
ethnic groups in the United States, as well as in
Orange County,” she added.
There are more than 1 million people of Korean
ancestry in the U.S. In California, the Korean
population is more than 345,000, an increase of 33
percent since 1990.

The loss of their heritage language is contributing to
a communication and ideological gap between first- and
second-generation Koreans, Costa noted. “This
disruption in family patterns has critical
consequences for engaging and supporting Korean
American students in schools and classrooms.”

Cho’s research “will be of value by helping to
mitigate these consequences. Her research will inform
policy and practice in, as well as future research on,
teacher preparation, bilingual education and K-12
student learning.”

Collection of this type of data is not only necessary
to understand Korean language programs in Korea, noted
Costa, but also to help understand the perspectives of
Korean-American adolescents in these programs. What
Cho theorizes and finds through her research will be
applicable to heritage language learning of all
languages, said Costa.

Sharing Experiences
Cho lived in Korea until she was 9, when her parents
moved the family to Argentina. Her father, a
Presbyterian missionary, founded a Korean newspaper,
language school and church in Buenos Aires. Living in
another country resulted in culture shock for her and
her three siblings.
“It was hard to assimilate into the Argentinean
culture and to learn the Spanish language,” she
recalled. “The school experience was difficult because
of the cultural and language barriers.”

Cho eventually learned Spanish, graduated with honors
from elementary school and attended junior high school
before her family moved, when she was 14, to Los
Angeles, where she experienced yet another cultural
and language transition.

She admits personal experiences gave her the
opportunity to become trilingual in Korean, Spanish
and English and the inspiration to pursue study in
language development. Her experiences also served to
motivate her research efforts.

Cho was moved to put together a book about immigrants’
experiences. She and her mother, Sara Cho, are
co-editors of “Studying Abroad at an Early Age” (“Jo
gi Yu Hwak,” 2002). The book, written in Korean,
explores the experiences of studying abroad as a child
from U.S. residents’ and foreign students’
perspectives. It also contains personal essays on
immigrants’ experiences living in foreign countries
and other educational issues.   

A former schoolteacher in Los Angeles, Cho earned her
doctorate in education with an emphasis in language,
literacy and learning from the University of Southern
California in 1998. She became a member of CSUF’s
faculty in 2000 and is the CLAD (cross-cultural,
language and academic development certificate program)
coordinator for secondary education.

She hopes her research will help her in training
pre-service and in-service teachers.

“My teaching will be based on theory and research,
coupled with real world problems, as well as on how to
better train our prospective teachers in dealing with
culturally and linguistically diverse students.”