Construction of Cultural Identity in Immigrant Youth

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The study of acculturation is rooted in a number of subfields of psychology including social psychology, counselling psychology and cross-cultural psychology (e.g. Liebkind, 1996; Wang, Schwartz, & Zamboanga, 2010; Yoon, Hacker, Hewitt, Abrams, & Cleary, 2012). A number of studies have defined acculturation to be a concept involving two different processes of cultural and psychological changes that take place due to contact between at least two cultural groups and their individual group members (e.g. Berry, 2005, Smith & Khawaja, 2011). These processes involve different forms of mutual compromise that lead to adaptations in psychological and sociocultural aspects between both groups (Berry, 2005).

At the group level, members experience a number of changes in areas including cultural practices as well as social structures. At the individual level, on the other hand, it entails changing one’s behavioral repertoire (Berry, 2005). These changes occur for a variety of reasons including migration and sojourning, and carries on long after the establishment of initial contact in culturally plural societies, where ethnic groups maintain characteristics closely tied to their cultural heritage (Berry, 2005). While the process of acculturation continues for as long as culturally different groups coexist and come into contact, there are some longer-term adjustments required to live in such culture-contact environment that take different forms which are, in many instances, the result of compromise and accommodation among groups in contact (Berry, 2005). More often than not, this entails, for example, learning a starkly different language from that of one’s own, sharing each other’s preference for food, as well as adopting the way in which members of the respective cultural groups interact that are characteristic of their group (Berry, 2005). At times, these mutual adjustments occur fairly easily through culture learning, a concept widely studied by Berry (1992). However, culture conflicts and acculturative stress during intercultural interactions may also arise. Hence, acculturating individuals learn to adopt different coping strategies.

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Four acculturation approaches were discovered as the foundation upon which individuals adopt to better help themselves adjust to the dominant group’s cultural way of living (Berry, 2008). The first strategy described by Berry (2008) was assimilation, which stated that a person is willing to adapt to the dominant group’s culture at the expense of compromising and possibly losing his or her own cultural identity. The second strategy postulated was separation which Berry (2008) defined as the preference for the acculturating individual to hang on to his or her own cultural identity, while avoiding any form of interaction with others. On the other hand, the integration strategy was described as the interest displayed to retain the individual’s own culture, while simultaneously engaging in interactions and partaking in some aspects of the dominant group (Ndika, 2013). Finally, the last strategy described by Berry (2008) was marginalization, defined as a person’s reluctance not only to retain his or her own cultural practices, but also to acquire and experience the new culture.

The goal of this paper seeks to outline the concept of acculturation stress specifically targeting at immigrant students as it has been extensively researched on and studied in the fields of cross-cultural psychology. Following the aforementioned discussion on the general concept of acculturation, the phenomenon of acculturation stress will be further elaborated below.

Acculturation Stress

According to a study conducted by Berry (1992), two conceptualized outcomes of acculturation have been posited. The first conceptualized outcome has been referred to as “behavioral shifts”, which has been found to be changes in a person’s behavioral repertoire that occur fairly easily and are typically non-problematic. This process of an individual’s shifting behavior encompasses three sub-processes which are cultural shedding, culture learning, as well as cultural conflict (Berry, 2005). Cultural shedding and culture learning involve the intentional loss of behaviors and the replacement of other acquired behaviors that enable the acculturating individual to better integrate. This process, often times also referred to as adjustments, are generally made with little difficulty. However, a certain level of cultural conflict may arise, which in the case of those seeking to assimilate, will resolve the conflict by adopting the dominant group’s behavioral norms (Berry, 2005). For those seeking separation, individuals may disengage from acculturating in order to keep away from cultural conflicts continuing. In the case of people pursuing integration, cultural conflict can be circumvented only when the two cultural groups in contact agree to mutually accommodate to each other. Finally, for those seeking marginalization, individuals tend to seek little involvement in either of the cultures as a form of resolution to culture conflict (Berry, 2005).

When an individual experiences higher levels of cultural conflict and these less than positive experiences become problematic albeit controllable, then acculturative stress, which is the second approach, is the befitting conceptualization (Berry, Kim, Minde, & Mok, 1987). This concept has been defined as a stress reaction in regard to life events stemming from acculturation experiences, and have been found to reduce one’s health status in psychological and social aspects, specifically, experiencing feelings of confusion, anxiousness, depressed mood, as well as identity confusion (Berry et al., 1987).

Acculturative Stressors International Students Experience

Moving abroad to a foreign country to pursue studies can result in a number of possible challenges; international students may encounter acculturative stress which is a result of life changes in the process of acculturating, and problems with adjusting to the new environment and host culture (Smith & Khawaja, 2011). When the individual encounters an acculturative stressor, a further evaluation occurs in correspondence to whether he or she has adequate coping strategies to deal with the stressor. If sufficient strategies to cope are employed, the acculturative stress encountered may be little, however, if the employed strategies are not adequate to overcome the stressor or incorrect coping strategies are used, the experienced acculturative stress levels may be higher, and in more serious cases, depression and anxiety may develop (e.g. Rachel & Khawaja, 2011).

Based on previous extensive studies, researchers have found and underscored the prevalence of life changes an international student may experience being in a new environment and culture (e.g. Berry, 2005; Rachel & Khawaja, 2011). These changes could become stressors to him or her, if they are negatively appraised and thought of as being a challenge (Rachel & Khawaja, 2011).

According to a study conducted by Rachel and Khawaja (2011), the acculturative stressors within the literature pertaining to international students include language, educational stressors, sociocultural stressors and discrimination.

Language Barrier

The first and major stressor faced by international students is language barrier, to which Chen (1999) argued that anxiety derived from having to speak a foreign language is a stressor that interacts with academic and sociocultural related stressors. In the academic aspect, language barriers can have an effect on essay writing, comprehending lectures, and the ability to present in class (Chen, 1999, Mori, 2000). Poyrazli and Kavanaugh’s (2006) study showed that international students studying in the United States of America (U.S.A) who were low academic achievers reported their English proficiency to be lower and greater overall strain on adjustment. In addition, a qualitative study carried out by Trice (2003) which investigated on the perceptions of university academic staff, including professors and deans, underlined that English proficiency was the primary difficulty for international students, and reported that this challenge could have a negative impact on students’ academic achievement.

In the social aspect, language barriers can hinder the attempts of international students to befriend and interact with locals (Chen, 1999; Mori, 2000). Studies have found an association between English proficiency and higher levels of self-esteem, and shown to be positively associated with more interpersonal relationships with locals (e.g. Barratt & Huba, 1994). Additionally, Zhang and Goodson (2011) reported that English competency was a predictor of psychological and sociocultural adaptation. Furthermore, there is extensive evidence that poor English proficiency predicts acculturative stress (e.g. Dao, Lee, & Chang, 2007; Poyrazli, Kavanaugh, Baker, & Al-Timimi, 2004).

Educational Stressors

There are several possible acculturative stress factors that all international students experience; academic stress is believed to be intensified as a result of other added stressors including that of foreign language anxiety and having to adjust to a new educational environment (Smith & Khawaja, 2011). For example, in a study conducted by Misra, Crist and Burant (2003), it was reported that international students pursuing their studies in the U.S.A who encountered academic stress had stronger reactions to other stressors experienced when adapting to the educational environment.

International students may also experience difficulty aligning their academic expectations versus the reality of university life, wherein students may expect to perform better in the host country than that in their home country (Chen, 1999; Mori, 2000). However, their academic achievement may fall below what was expected due to acculturative stressors of studying in a foreign language and adjusting to the new cultural and educational setting (Smith & Khawaja, 2011).

Sociocultural Stressors

In addition to the experienced acculturative stressors in the language and educational aspects, frequently international students are required to establish new social relationships and network after leaving their loved ones and friends back in their hometown (Smith & Khawaja, 2011). A growing body of research have suggested that this may leave an impact on the ability of international students to form new friendships, and in turn, influence sociocultural and psychological adjustment (Brisset, Safdar, Lewis, & Sabatier, 2010), both of which, could lead to feelings of loneliness in the host country (Smith & Khawaja, 2011).


Discrimination has also been reported to be another possible acculturative stressor faced by international students. Previous qualitative studies have revealed that international students not only experience significant discrimination ranging from inferiority complex, employment discrimination and verbal attacks (Poyrazli & Grahame, 2007). According to a plethora of studies, these feelings and experiences of being discriminated can leave a negative impact on the adaptation of international students, and have been found to associate with poor psychological well-being (Atri, Sharma, & Cottrell, 2006; Jung, Hecht, & Wadsworth, 2007).


This piece of assignment has discussed the extensively researched acculturation concepts to examine the extent to which these concepts are representative of the acculturation experience of international students, and are aligned with existing literature for this student group. Although much of the empirical evidence have been supported, there are some limitations in this area of research. Firstly, future research could perhaps further explore acculturation attitudes of locals from the host country so as to better align both their attitudes, thereby reducing the detrimental effect of acculturative stress in the sociocultural domain (Smith & Khawaja, 2011). Secondly, further domains of the postulated models and concepts could perhaps investigate the individual factors that occurred before or during the acculturation process, which include a person’s motivation level that could potentially influence how he or she adapts (Chirkov, Vansteenkiste, Tao, & Lynch, 2007).


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Construction of Cultural Identity in Immigrant Youth. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
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