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Immigrant youth better off if still attached to their ethnic culture, largest-ever international study finds


Immigrant youth are better able to handle discrimination, have fewer emotional problems, and get along better in school and in the community when they remain strongly attached to their own ethnic culture rather than try to melt into a national culture, a Queen’s University-based international psychological study has found. They do even better when they have a double attachment to both the national society and to their heritage culture.

Encompassing more than 5,000 interviews with immigrant youth in 13 countries, the study is the world’s most exhaustive examination of how the children of first-generation immigrants adapt in a new culture. Immigrant Youth In Cultural Transition: Acculturation, Identity and Adaptation Across National Contexts, will be published early next year by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Amongst its comprehensive findings, the study concludes that a strong ethnic identity may have a “buffering effect” against discrimination – “Adolescents who are confident in their own ethnicity and proud of their ethnic group may be better able to deal constructively with discrimination, for example, by regarding it as the problem of the perpetrator or by taking proactive steps to combat it.”

An unexpected finding is that immigrant youth who try to blend in actually have more problems.

“The big surprise here is that youth don’t do as well either psychologically or socially if they try to assimilate,” says Dr. John Berry.

The Queen’s psychology professor emeritus is the lead author of the 10-year study which looks at the psychological, social and academic success of participants while considering a plethora of variables including: perceived discrimination, length of residence, religion, gender, age, language proficiency, neighbourhood composition, actual diversity in the country of settlement, and diversity policy in that country.

The result is the broadest view to date of how immigrant youth adapt to and succeed in the home countries chosen by their parents. The study also revealed:

  • Immigrant youth are as well adapted as the resident youth of each country.
  • The largest group of immigrant youth eventually adapt by becoming bi-cultural, rather than assimilated – 36 per cent of immigrant youth were comfortable and involved in both their ethnic and national cultures.
  • 23 per cent are primarily oriented toward their ethnic culture. While adolescents with this profile adapt well psychologically, they view themselves as separate from the national culture and are less involved in the larger society.
  • Participants who try to assimilate have poorer self-esteem, do not do as well in school and exhibit more anti-social behaviour than those who integrate. Nineteen per cent of the youth fit this profile, indicating that immigrant adolescents generally reject total assimilation as a strategy for adapting.
  • Immigrant youth fare better in countries that have a strategy of promoting diversity than they do in countries that do not specifically support diversity.

The study urges governments to abandon public policies that stress assimilation and adopt those which actively promote diversity and an acceptance of ethnic cultures.

“Countries can help their new immigrants adapt by actively supporting diversity in health care, broadcasting, education – in all facets of society,” says Dr. Berry who notes that Canada is a world leader in promoting diversity.

Participants came from the three kinds of countries that receive immigrants: settler countries (Australia, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and the U.S.), formerly colonizing countries (France, Germany, Netherlands and the U.K.), and countries that have more recently been receiving immigrants (Norway, Sweden, Finland and Portugal).


Sarah Withrow 613.533.3280, or Lorinda Peterson 613-533-3234,, Queen’s News & Media Services

Attention broadcasters: Queen’s now has facilities to provide broadcast quality audio and video feeds. For television interviews, we can provide a live, real-time double ender from Kingston fibre optic cable and broadcast quality radio transmissions from our on-campus studio. Please call for details.

Sarah Withrow | EurekAlert!
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