Frontiers

Between Two Languages

Graduate student Jeehyun Lim explores the social and cultural history of bilingualism in the U.S.
January 2010

Even as the United States embraces the badge of "melting pot," debates centering on issues of multiculturalism abound in the country. English graduate student Jeehyun Lim is conducting her dissertation research on one such issue—bilingualism. Lim became interested in the subject by reading novels about the experience of growing up in two languages, and these readings led her to conduct research on bilingual education in the U.S. in the latter half of the 20th century.

"I realized that this was an interesting time in U.S. history," Lim says. "There was a growing sentiment that you could have almost a dual identity—both a public identity and an ethnic identity—and that this could be good for the minority population as well as for Americans in general."

Lim is exploring the social and cultural history of bilingualism in the U.S. from 1960 to 2000 by analyzing representations of bilinguals in Asian-American and Latino literature. She focuses on writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Helena Maria Viramontes, Richard Rodriguez, Chang Rae Lee, Ha Jin and Julia Alvarez. "Asian Americans and Latinos have become such a big part of discussions about multiculturalism in America," Lim explains. "I'm interested in thinking about what these writers' participation in the idea of bilingualism has to say about multiculturalism in the post-war era." Lim's dissertation is organized around three models of bilinguals—the bilingual child, the dormant bilingual and the bilingual writer—and it explores the social dynamics of inclusion and exclusion around these figures.

In studying the bilingual child, for example, Lim reads Kingston's and Viramontes' representations of growing up with two languages against the more sociological descriptions used in debates surrounding bilingual education. "I'm interested in what gets left out when describing the bilingual child in educational debates," Lim says. "I'm also looking at why people were for or against bilingual education, and what kinds of models of development they had for a child that was growing up in two languages."

"Asian Americans and Latinos have become such a big part of discussions about multiculturalism in America. I'm interested in thinking about what these writers' participation in the idea of bilingualism has to say about multiculturalism in the post-war era." – Jeehyun Lim

Lim draws on ideas presented by psycholinguist Francois Grosjean in studying the dormant bilingual. Grosjean describes the dormant bilingual as someone who has forgotten one of his or her languages, and he asserts that it is as important to study the process of language forgetting as of language acquisition.

"This is an interesting category that represents how my research has really expanded my understanding of bilingualism," Lim says. "I had thought of being bilingual as having equal fluency in two languages, but I realized that this definition very rarely describes the reality of bilingual persons. Linguists and psycholinguists show that bilingual persons have all sorts of levels of fluency in their languages, and they also have very different relationships to those languages."

Lim looks at the works of Richard Rodriguez and Chang Rae Lee—two writers more often discussed in terms of linguistic assimilation—in the context of dormant bilingualism. Both authors write extensively about experiences of assimilation into American culture, and Rodriguez has sparked controversy with his explicit stand against bilingual education. Despite this, Lim explains, the impact of Rodriguez's and Lee's mother tongues, Spanish and Korean respectively, retains a strong presence in their works. "I'm interested," she says, "in how you can think about writers who write only in English and seemingly disavow their relationship to their mother tongue in terms of bilingualism."

Lim's study of the bilingual writer centers on the works of Ha Jin and Alvarez to explore how writers present a future for bilingual persons in the United States. "In education and in the corporate world, bilingualism is often promoted as something that confers an economic advantage in a capitalist market," Lim says. "These writers work in a market that's very driven by the English language, but at the same time I want to see if and how they present bilingualism as an asset that's not purely economic."

Lim's scholarship has been recognized with fellowships from the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism (DCC) and from the Penn Humanities Forum—a testament to the interdisciplinary nature of her work.

"My primary base is in English and in literature, but I think the writers I work on offer so many interesting perspectives on a range of social issues that revolve around bilingualism," Lim says. "The way they portray growing up in two languages or living a life that is, on the surface, in English while maintaining a relationship to the mother tongue seems very much related to how Asian Americans and Latinos are positioned in contemporary U.S. society."