South Korean Minority Youth’s Identity Construction in the Context of Globalization: Their Imagination, Creativity, and Agency in Language and Culture Learning

PhD defended at: 

UC Berkeley


Jaran Shin



Research on minority youth in industrialized societies such as the United States and South Korea usually strives to uncover discriminatory practices on the part of teachers and institutions and/or cognitive, linguistic, and cultural deficits on the part of the students. Because their presence in the education system can problematize the pedagogic status quo, minority youth are often treated as a “problem” that need to be remedied through more equitable pedagogies and more vigorous integration into society. Although globalization has added further complexity to the situation, research on minority youth in both the U.S. and Korea has reproduced deficit perspectives taking aim at them. Indeed, few research studies account for the ways in which globalization wields its impact on education and either closes down or opens up ways for minority children to view themselves.

This dissertation investigates how marginalized Korean minority teenagers born from transnational marriages—socially and politically labeled as multicultural children—construct their identities as they cope with different languages and cultures in the context of globalization. Drawing on an ecological theoretical framework that captures the intersection of language, culture, and identity, I use multiple methods—namely, critical discourse analysis, hierarchical linear statistical modeling, and ethnographic analysis of embedded case studies—to explore (a) the manner in which Korean minority students of mixed parentage are portrayed by the media; (b) their performances and experiences of learning languages and cultures; and (c) their identities vis-à-vis language, culture, and the world.

The study begins with the analysis of newspaper articles to illuminate the kinds of macro discourses related to “multicultural” families and children. I collected more than 5,000 newsprints published by the Hankyoreh, the Hankook Ilbo, and the Chosun Ilbo from 2009 to 2013. Using statistical analysis of large-scale, longitudinal data, I then explore how the level of Korean and English proficiency of “multicultural” teenagers compares to that of teenagers born to Korean mothers. Lastly, to substantiate “multicultural” adolescents’ imagination, creativity, and agency in constructing their identities vis-à-vis language and culture, I employ ethnography of embedded case studies with a small number of adolescents born to immigrant mothers. This phase of the dissertation took place in Incheon, Korea. I followed six focal students, their families (particularly their Vietnamese, Chinese, and Filipina mothers), and schoolteachers across 2014. Largely four primary forms of data—fieldnotes produced from interactions and observations in the focal teenagers’ homes and schools, audio recordings, interview transcripts, and the students’ artifacts—were generated.

These data were combined and analyzed in a multi-staged analysis. In the first stage, adopting critical discourse analysis, I grounded the analysis in words used by newspapers and assigned descriptive codes to a section of newspaper data. In the second stage, as a way to describe growth trajectories of “multicultural” students’ and their peers’ Korean and English proficiency over broad intervals of time, I used the linear growth curve model. In the third and final stage, through a combination of qualitative coding and discourse analysis, the data were used to understand how “multicultural” teenagers learned linguistic and cultural practices as they constructed personal, cultural, and academic identities.

Findings deconstructed deficit perspectives on minority youth in Korea. At a macro level, “multicultural” families and children attracted varying characterizations from a marginalized group, to a threat, and to global human resources. These conflicting but simplified newspaper discourses reflected a particular mode of discrimination for “multicultural” children who were somehow not “Korean enough.” Simultaneously, the statistical analysis results also revealed no language proficiency difference between “multicultural” youth and their peers. This finding refuted the fundamental assumption of the discourses about “multicultural” children, namely that their deficiency in Korean was responsible for numerous issues in society. At a micro level, the ethnographic component of this dissertation illustrated how the six focal teenagers, regardless of their situations and interests, found ways to use globalization to their own advantage in living with multiple languages and cultures and in constructing their identities. Specifically, building upon their outstanding academic performances in school and capitalizing their linguistic/cultural resources, Tayo and Sungho were establishing themselves as more competent and conscious members of society. Similarly, Jinsoo and Heedong visualized alternative places to live, study, and/or work around the world and were developing their identities as cosmopolitan citizens who would cross national boundaries freely and value solidarity as well as dialogues. Lastly, by navigating diverse channels to communicate with others (e.g., drawing, technology), Hayang and Artanis were growing up to be “multilingual” subjects who would strategically use various semiotic and artistic resources to make meaning.

Through this study, I would ultimately argue that “multicultural” children are neither “minority” nor “multicultural”; but they are—or can be—elites, cosmopolitan citizens, and artistic multilingual subjects who can become contributing citizens in Korea and in the world. In this sense, one of the major implications of this dissertation is that if we are willing to “dig a little deeper” into the lives of these remarkable youth, we can resignify the unwarranted stereotypes from which they suffer, redefine constructs like “multicultural,” and deconstruct ideologies of oppression that continue to haunt “minority” youth to this very day.

ICAS is an initiative of the
International Insitute for Asian Studies