Study: Latino Teens Benefit From Sharing Two Cultures With Parents

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 25, 2009 2 min read
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Latino adolescents are happier and healthier if both they and their parents have one foot firmly planted in Latino culture and the other in U.S. culture, a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has found. In other words, Latino adolescents are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as abusing alcohol or drugs or dropping out of school, if they take steps to stay involved in their culture of heritage and their parents also take steps at the same time to integrate into U.S. culture.

One example of how policymakers can support biculturalism, the study suggests, is by backing two-way immersion programs in schools (also called dual-immersion programs), in which students who are dominant in English and students who are dominant in Spanish learn both languages in the same classroom. The researchers write: “Based on our findings, it would be useful to evaluate whether dual-immersion programs connecting youth to culture of origin language and traditions would benefit the mental health, self-esteem, and aggressive behavior of U.S.-born Latino adolescents.”

The longitudinal study of 281 Latino adolescents and one of their parents is described in a special issue of The Journal of Primary Prevention that focuses on the connections between cultural adaptation and Latino youth behavior (only abstracts are available to non-subscribers). Fifty-eight percent of the youths studied, all of whom now live in either Arizona or North Carolina, were from Mexico, 21 percent were born in the United States, and the rest were natives of Central American or South American countries.

The researchers found a link between the extent of parents’ involvement in U.S. culture and a decrease in social problems, aggression, and anxiety among their teenagers. Also, adolescents’ involvement in Latino culture had a positive correlation with the level of their self-esteem. If they were involved in their culture of heritage, teenagers were less likely to have feelings of hopelessness, social problems, and aggression.

One more thing: School bonding increased with time in the United States for Latino teenagers who had been born in other countries, but the same was not true for Latino youths born in the United States.

I’ve seen studies before that show it’s good for immigrant youths’ mental and physical well-being to maintain strong ties to their native culture. (See “Scholars Mull the Paradox of Immigrants” from EdWeek.) But this is the first study I’ve seen that also shows the importance of parents taking steps to adapt to the new culture.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.