We May All Speak English, but We Don't Always Speak the Same Language

By Vishda Patel.


When families emigrate to the United States, they come in a myriad of ways. Some

families come together, and their intention is to move the entire family to a new place.

Others send just one adult, with the intention of staying temporarily, perhaps for work or

study, to return home in a few years. Others come one at a time, sending for other

family members as time and money permit. Each of these styles of immigration impacts

the experience of assimilation into the new culture. Giftedness in the mix of the

immigration adds additional challenges.


Giftedness is defined differently across the globe. In some cultures, where all children

are believed to have the ability to excel, giftedness is not considered an attribute.

Sometimes there is a strong work and education ethic where children are driven to

succeed through hard work and long hours of study. And, in other cultures, giftedness is

identified and addressed with differentiation.


Consider the following part of a journal entry written by a gifted teen from a first

generation immigrant family (see the end of the article for the full entry):


I want to have friends and do things with them. I want to be able to invite people over

without my parents grilling them about their SAT scores. I want to drive places by

myself. I am old enough and I have my license. They let me get my license so they

could tell everyone that I have it. But now, I can’t drive anywhere by myself. When I ask

to go out .they say sure but they have to call the parents and verify everything. They

won’t let me drive with my friends and they insist on sitting in the car and waiting for me

if I ever do go to a movie or friend’s house. It is SO embarrassing! Worse they want me

to have my friends over. Then they spend the entire time grilling them on colleges, SAT

scores and even more personal questions all the while trying to ply them with our native

food. I don’t even like to eat that food.


Working with culturally diverse gifted populations poses several challenges that are not

readily apparent. Sometimes the characteristics of the culture mask aspects of giftedness, and, conversely, those same characteristics prevent us from understanding

the gifted student.


Several things are worth keeping in mind when working across cultures with gifted

children.


Start with yourself. Understanding your cultural heritage and the assumptions that

stem from that background is important. The culture we are raised in defines many of

our judgments and values. It creates the lens through which we view the world. So,

when we understand the perspective from which we are basing our own expectations,

we are better able to understand others. From that vantage point, it is easier to

recognize the differences. It is also important to remember that you don’t have to accept

the differences, but merely recognize and acknowledge them.


Seek to understand the culture. Learning about the cultures of the children you are

working with will provide the basis for understanding the lens through which they view

the world. This would include understanding their story of migration and the specific

traditions and values with which they are raised at home. Is English spoken at home, or

is another language the primary means of communication? How long has the family

been in the United States? To what degree has the family chosen to assimilate into the

culture? In many immigrant families, the child is the only one who speaks English and

has the responsibility for being the spokesperson for the family. Meeting the entire

family can also be helpful in this regard.


Strive for curiosity. Most people appreciate others’ interest in them. Ask questions of

the child and the family to understand and appreciate the culture most fully. Showing an

interest builds a stronger relationship that, in turn, allows the child to feel more

comfortable, and helps to bridge any cultural gaps that may exist.


Observe as much as possible. So much information can be gleaned through

observation. Words are not necessary. A visit to the home or a meeting with the family

can reveal much about the cultural context within which the child is living. Who comes to

the meeting? Is the father in charge? Are siblings involved in the conversation? Does

the child have a say in what activities they choose to participate in? While the same

information can be gleaned through asking questions, the responses may differ from

what you observe.


Listen more than talk. Active listening, rather than talking, provides better clues to

what is going on in a child’s mind. Sometimes, the words that are not spoken but are

implied provide more insight. With active listening, you allow yourself the time to hear

what the child is really saying. Watching body language is also helpful in determining if

the words expressed are genuine, or said only because the child feels that that is the

“right” thing to say.


Always admit when you don’t know. When working across cultures, it is difficult to

know and understand all the traditions. It is okay to admit when you don’t know. In fact,

most people are pleased when someone shows a genuine interest and wants to learn

about their culture.


Recognize that all English is not the same. English spoken as a first language is

different from English spoken as a second, third, or even fourth language. The context

in which English is spoken is based in the culture in which it was learned. For example,

those who have studied English in school but have not practiced in a conversational

setting may come across as direct and cold. They may not be familiar with colloquial

expressions and may misunderstand what is being asked of them. Also, some people

may speak English, but think in their mother tongue. This can cause delays in response

or a misunderstanding in expressions.


By becoming more culturally aware and taking the time to understand our own cultural

lens we create stronger relationships with those around us. And as we strive to

understand and honor the differences among us, we create a stronger platform from

which to move forward.


The Full Journal Entry Referenced in the Column


I never thought of myself as an actor but today I realized that I am, and a good one at

that! My friend told me that I was so ‘put together’ and mature. She said that even

though she knows I have had some challenges in my family life I always seem to

manage it well and no one is the wiser. She wondered why I don’t need to reach out to

others and how I can juggle all the struggles myself. Does it really look that simple from

the outside? Can’t anyone see the pain that I feel? Am I that masterful at hiding my

struggles? I have been taught that what happens at home stays at home. Family

matters are not for ‘outsiders’ and by that I mean anyone other than the people living

under our roof. I am not even to talk to my grandparents because that would be

betraying my parents’ confidence. They don’t want to appear to be ‘bad’ parents! Not

that they are all bad mind you but they are not perfect. Is anyone? Why am I meant to

get is all ‘right’ and they can err and be human? And college? The pressure is so much

that I almost don’t want to bother to try anymore. That wouldn’t do either. Everyone

goes to college and a ‘ good’ one at that. No community college for me. Who’s to say

that might not be the best option for me? I could spend my time working on developing

my paintings. But no, a proper young man doesn’t make his life work as a ‘painter’

(a.k.a. artist). No, I have to go to a top ten college, study higher math and science and

become some doctor. How many more doctors does this world need anyway? And why

don’t my parents see that life as a teenager isn’t all about studying? I want to have

friends and do things with them. I want to be able to invite people over without my

parents grilling them about their SAT scores. I want to drive places by myself. I am old

enough and I have my license. They let me get my license so they could tell everyone

that I have it. But now, I can’t drive anywhere by myself. When I ask to go out they say

sure but they have to call the parents and verify everything. They won’t let me drive with

my friends and they insist on sitting in the car and waiting for me if I ever do go to a

movie or friend’s house. It is SO embarrassing! Worse they want me to have my friends

over. Then they spend the entire time grilling them on colleges, SAT scores and even

more personal questions all the while trying to ply them with our native food. I don’t

even like to eat that food. The flavors are just so foreign to me. So I am learning that it is

just best to sit at home on weekends and evenings and finish my work. The sooner I get

out of this family the better. When I get to college, I will be free and no one will be

hanging over my head.


Even at school the teachers ask me how I am and I say ‘good’ or ‘fine’. They always

single me out as the model student who completes the projects early and always know

the answer. Who wouldn’t if all they did was stay home and study. Don’t the teachers

understand that I don’t like all that attention? The other kids make fun of me and call me

the teacher’s pet. Doesn’t anyone see that it is because I am expected to do my work

ahead and that my parents force me to do it that the work gets done? It’s bad enough

that no one understands at home but then to come to school and find that I can’t fit in

here either…


There is one person who understands. She said that I should go and talk to the

guidance counselor. But if I do that I will blow my family’s cover and I can’t do that. Still I

did try to go once and it was a disaster. I couldn’t look the counselor in the eye and she

thought I was being disrespectful. Where I come from looking of authority someone in

the eye is considered to be rude! Then she asked me all sorts of personal questions but

I couldn’t answer honestly because then I would be revealing my family’s personal

business. The counselor ended up calling my parents and then they were so mad that I

had gone to someone outside the family. They wanted to know what was so bad about

my life and how much they had given up to bring me to this country and give me all the

opportunities that they had provided. The whole thing was more trouble than I could

have ever imagined!

________________________________________________________

Dr. Vidisha Patel has a doctorate of Education in Counseling Psychology and practices

as a therapist in Sarasota, Florida, where much of her work is with gifted children and

their families, with a focus on stress and anxiety. She is licensed to teach stress

management techniques. Dr. Patel is active in her local community and regularly

speaks at conferences, schools, and parenting groups throughout the community, state

and nationally. She has worked as a consultant for Florida State University training

primary caregivers on infant mental health. She also works with teen parents in schools.

Dr. Patel’s professional affiliations include The World Association of Infant Mental

Health, The Zero to Three Society, Sarasota County Medical Society Alliance, and Pine

View School Band Association. Dr. Patel holds an MBA from Columbia University and

worked in finance on Wall Street and overseas before obtaining her doctorate in

psychology. Dr. Patel is the mother of two gifted children.

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