In Their Own Words: Asian Immigrants’ Experiences Navigating Language Barriers in the United States (2024)

In Their Own Words: Asian Immigrants’ Experiences Navigating Language Barriers in the United States (1)

How we did this

This report focuses on how immigrant members of the ethnically diverse Asian population navigate through challenges related to language and culture in the United States. The analysis is based on a Pew Research Center analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey and 49 focus groups of participants from across the U.S. that we conducted virtually in the fall of 2021 in 17 non-English languages. This is part of a broader focus group project that explored the identity, economic mobility, representation, and experiences of immigration and discrimination among the Asian population in the United States.

The discussions in these groups may or may not resonate with other Asians living in the United States, as participants were recounting their personal experiences. All quotes in this report were translated from 17 non-English languages into English and have been lightly edited for readability, and punctuation.

By including participants of different languages, immigration or refugee experiences, educational backgrounds, and income levels, this focus group study aimed to capture, in people’s own words, what it means to be Asian in America. More information about the groups and analysis can be found inthis methodology page.

Terminology

The terms “Asian” and “Asian American” are used interchangeably throughout this report to refer to U.S. adults who self-identify as Asian, either alone or in combination with other races or Hispanic identity.

The United States” and “the U.S.” are used interchangeably with “America” for variations in the writing.

U.S. born refers to people born in the 50 U.S. states or the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories.

Immigrant refers to people who were not U.S. citizens at birth – in other words, those born outside the U.S., Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories to parents who were not U.S. citizens. The terms “immigrant” and “foreign born” are used interchangeably in this report.

New immigrant arrivals to the United States face many challenges and obstacles when navigating their daily lives. For Asian immigrants, these include language and cultural obstacles that impact those who arrive with little to no proficiency in English. But navigating life in America also impacts English-speaking immigrants as they adjust to life in a new country with its own unique linguistic and cultural quirks.

A little over half of Asian Americans (54%) were born outside the United States, including about seven-in-ten Asian American adults (68%). While many Asian immigrants arrived in the United States in recent years, a majority arrived in the U.S. over 10 years ago. The story of Asian immigration to the U.S. is over a century old, and today’s Asian immigrants arrived in the country at different times and through different pathways. They also trace their roots, culture and language to more than 20 countries in Asia, including the Indian subcontinent.

In 2021, Pew Research Center conducted 49 focus groups with Asian immigrants to understand the challenges they faced, if any, after arriving in the country. The focus groups consisted of 18 distinct Asian origins and were conducted in 17 Asian languages. (For more, see the methodology.)

Across the focus groups, daily challenges related to speaking English emerged as a common theme. These include experiences getting medical care, accessing government services, learning in school and finding employment along with speaking English and understanding U.S. culture. Participants also shared frustration, stress and at times sadness because of the cultural and language barriers they encountered. Some participants also told us about their challenges learning English, as well as the times they received support from others to deal with or overcome these language barriers.

Among Asian immigrants, recent arrivals report lower English proficiency levels than long-term residents

Focus group findings about learning English and challenges navigating life in the U.S. are reflected in government data about English proficiency among Asian immigrants. For example, about half (53%) of Asian immigrants ages 5 and older who have been in the U.S. for five years or less say they speak English proficiently, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. By contrast, 60% of Asian immigrants who have been in the U.S. for more than a decade say they speak English proficiently, a higher share than recent arrivals.

Among Asian Americans ages 5 and older, 58% of immigrants speak English proficiently, compared with nearly all of the U.S. born who say the same (94%).

There is language diversity among Asian immigrants living in the U.S. The vast majority (86%) of Asian immigrants 5 and older say they speak a language other than English at home, while 14% say they speak only English in their homes. The most spoken non-English language among Asian immigrants is Chinese, including Mandarin and Cantonese (20%). Hindi (18%) is the second most commonly spoken non-English language among Asian immigrants (this figure includes Urdu, Bengali and other Indo-Iranian and Indo-European languages), followed by Tagalog and other Filipino languages (13%) and Vietnamese (9%). This reflects the languages of the four largest Asian origin groups (Chinese, Indian, Filipino and Vietnamese) living in the U.S. But overall, many other languages are spoken at home by Asian immigrants.

The following chapters explore three broad themes from the focus group discussions: the challenges Asian immigrants have faced in navigating daily life and communicating in English; tools and strategies they used to learn the language; and types of help they received from others in adapting to English-speaking settings. The experiences discussed may not resonate with all Asian U.S. immigrants, but the study sought to capture a wide range of views by including participants of different languages, immigration or refugee experiences, educational backgrounds and income levels.

In Their Own Words: Asian Immigrants’ Experiences Navigating Language Barriers in the United States (2024)

FAQs

What language barrier do immigrants have in the US? ›

About half (47%) of immigrant adults in the U.S. have limited English proficiency (LEP), meaning that they speak English less than very well. Immigrants with LEP come from diverse backgrounds and speak a variety of languages.

What was life like for Asian immigrants in the United States? ›

Chinese immigrants worked in very dangerous conditions. They were forced to work from sun up to sun down and sleep in tents in the middle of winter. They received low salaries, about $25-35 a month for 12 hours a day, and worked six days a week. They were discriminated since 1882 to 1943s.

What are the barriers to health care among Asian immigrants in the United States? ›

This paper reviews four barriers faced by Asian immigrants to participating in the U.S. health care system fully: (1) linguistic discordance between providers and patients; (2) health-related beliefs and cultural incompetency of health systems; (3) issues related to accessing health services; and (4) discrimination in ...

How were the experiences of Asian immigrants different from those of European immigrants? ›

The experiences of Asian immigrants were different from those of European immigrants because Asian immigrants were minorities and treated as second rate citizens. They also took a lot of gripe regarding pearl harbor because they were Asian.

What barriers do immigrants face? ›

One of the biggest challenges that immigrants face when arriving in the United States is discrimination. There are people who, unfortunately, are biased and prejudiced towards immigrants. Discrimination and prejudice can manifest in various ways, including being excluded from employment opportunities.

What attracted Asian immigrants to the US? ›

Japanese, Korean, and South Asian immigrants also arrived in the continental United States starting from the late 1800s and onwards to fill demands for labor. Japanese immigrants were primarily farmers facing economic upheaval during the Meiji Restoration; they began to migrate in large numbers to the continental ...

What were the reasons for Asian immigrants to come to the United States? ›

In the 1850s, Chinese workers migrated to the United States, first to work in the gold mines, but also to take agricultural jobs, and factory work, especially in the garment industry.

Who are the most common Asian immigrants in America? ›

Chinese, Indian, and Filipino Americans make up the largest share of the Asian American population with 5 million, 4.3 million, and 4 million people respectively.

How do cultural barriers affect immigrants? ›

They may experience homesickness, acculturation stress, and difficulty adapting to new customs and norms. Additionally, immigrants may be hesitant to seek help for mental health issues due to cultural differences and language barriers.

What are the main health issues facing Asian populations? ›

Asian Americans are most at risk for the following health conditions: cancer, heart disease, stroke, unintentional injuries (accidents), and diabetes.

How does Asian culture view healthcare? ›

"Mix and Match" Approach to Care

In general, most Asians do not seem to perceive any great dichotomy between the Eastern and Western medical belief systems. There is a widespread belief that some illnesses are best treated by traditional Chinese medicine and others by Western physicians.

What kind of experiences did Asian immigrants have in the US in the late 19th century? ›

Chinese immigrants in the 19th century worked in the California Gold Rush of the 1850s and the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s. They also worked as laborers in Western mines. They suffered racial discrimination at every level of White society. Many Americans were stirred to anger by the "Yellow Peril" rhetoric.

What are the similarities between experiences of European and Asian immigrants in the United States during the second industrial revolution? ›

European and Asian immigrants often faced many similar difficulties in the United States during the Second Industrial Revolution, such as prejudice and discrimination from the native-born population, as well as exploitation and abuse by their employers.

How were the experiences of Asian immigrants at Angel Island different from European immigrants? ›

Chinese immigrants were held on Angel Island for weeks, months, or even years while awaiting hearings or appeals on their applications. In contrast, immigrants passing through Ellis Island on American's east coast—who were generally European—were processed within hours or days and merely had to pass medical exams.

Why do immigrants tend to lose their native language? ›

These speakers typically do not teach their mother tongue to their children, so the next generation often grows up speaking only English. In situations like this, once the shift to English is complete, the mother tongue disappears from the community when the last bilingual speakers pass away.

What is language discrimination in the United States? ›

This type of discrimination generally makes it illegal to prefer one language over another, though there are many exceptions. The driving force behind the illegality of language discrimination is whether or not an individual was hired, fired, or required to speak one language over another for a discriminatory purpose.

What is the language shift in immigrants? ›

This may take three or four generations, but sometimes language shift is completed in just two generations. Typically migrants are virtually monolingual in their mother tongue, their children are bilingual and their grandchildren are often monolingual in the language of the 'host' country.

What language does an immigrant need to learn? ›

At present, learning English remains a central requirement of the naturalization process despite the fact that the United States does not have an official language.

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