Applied Psychology OPUS

Korean American Language Ability: Cultural Identification and Willingness to Sacrifice

Yimkwan Tsang

Like many immigrant groups, Korean-American immigrants face challenges in negotiating differences between Korean and American cultural values when adapting to American society (Rhee, 1995). Korean culture emphasizes familial and communal relatedness and collectivistic orientation regarding the goals and interests of the larger group (Kim & Choi, 1994). Because family is the most important in-group, children are taught to prioritize and obey their parents (Fuligni, Tseng, & Lam, 1999). Furthermore, parents and elders at the top of the social hierarchy are considered to have the wisdom and foresight to make decisions for children (Kim & Choi, 1994). Consequently, children are taught to downplay or sacrifice their personal interests in order to fulfill the expected roles that their parents have laid out for them (Suzuki & Greenfield, 2002). Therefore, despite a certain level of suffering and discomfort (Akhtar & Varma, 2012), self-sacrificing behaviors are expected of everyone in the family in order to achieve material success (Kim & Choi, 1994).
Mainstream American culture, on the contrary, tends to value an individualistic orientation, personal autonomy and individual rights (Kim & Choi, 1994; Fuligni, Tseng, & Lam, 1999). Individuals are not obligated to adhere to strict hierarchical structures or relationships, and are encouraged to form groups based on common interests, experiences, and goals (Suzuki & Greenfield, 2002). These seemingly opposite cultural expectations have caused immigrants to struggle to come to terms with their identification with both heritage and host cultures (Ryder, Alden, & Paulhus, 2000). Despite studies that have shown that adolescents can integrate certain aspects of each culture when forming their own identities, it is perhaps inevitable that receiving an American education has a pervasive and dominant acculturative impact on adolescents’ cultural identity development (Madrid, 1995; Ryder, Alden, & Paulhus, 2000). Nonetheless, acculturative processes and cultural identifications are highly individualized and, as a result, there is great variability in the rate of Korean American high school students’ sense of self and belongingness to a given cultural group (Ryder, Alden, & Paulhus, 2000) and in how acculturation may influence their willingness to sacrifice for the family.

In addition to differential identification with Korean and American cultures, fluency in the Korean language may have an effect on Korean American youths’ maintenance of Korean values. Specifically, familiarity with the Korean language can potentially facilitate adolescent’s understanding of social hierarchy within Korean communities because of the honorifics system inherent to the Korean language (Rhee, 1995). It is possible that the constant linguistic reminders to respect elders and people with a higher social status through the daily use of the Korean language at home might affect the youths’ perspective on communal relatedness and obligations.

The current study examined whether differences in English and Korean language ability are related to Korean American high school students’ willingness to sacrifice for their family. More specifically, the current study seeks to test the hypothesis that an adolescent’s Korean language ability moderates the relation between Korean American high school students’ cultural identification and willingness to sacrifice.



The survey data was collected in 2004 from seven churches (2 Protestant, 4 Catholic, and 1 non-denominational), one community-based social service agency, and one ESL cohort at a high school in the Chicago suburbs. Korean American participants who were in high school were invited to participate in a survey about Korean American families. $10 gift cards were offered in exchange for their participation.


Due to a few missing responses from participants, a final sample size of 197 Korean Americans (51% male) was used in this study. Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics of the sample. Participants ranged in age from 13 to 19 years old with an average age of 15.7 (SD= 1.36). 53.8% (n=106) of the participants identified themselves as fluent in the Korean language, while 80.2% (n=158) of them identified as fluent in the English language.


Cultural identification. Cultural identification was measured using the 20-item Vancouver Index of Acculturation (VIA) (Ryder, Alden, & Paulhus, 2000). Ten items in the VIA are designed to assess identification with the heritage culture (e.g., “I believe in Korean values”) and 10 items are questions regarding the mainstream culture (e.g., “I believe in mainstream American values”). The scale uses a 9-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (“strongly disagree”) to 9 (“strongly agree”). The scores for each subscale were measured by calculating the mean of its respective items. Participants’ relative cultural identification scores were calculated as the difference between their Korean identification score and their American identification score, such that a higher positive number meant that the individual identified more strongly with the heritage culture, and vice versa. The Cronbach’s alpha levels for the heritage culture scale and the mainstream culture scale were both .88 in this study.

Language ability. Participants were asked to report their level of Korean language ability and their level of English language ability on 5-point Likert scales, with 1 being “not at all fluent” and 5 being “fluent.” An example item is, “How do you evaluate your own Korean language ability?” A score of 0 indicated that they perceived their English and Korean fluency to be equal. Scores greater than 0 indicated greater Korean fluency and scores less than 0 indicated greater English fluency. Language ability was measured as the difference between the two items that the participants reported in the survey.

Willingness to sacrifice. Willingness to sacrifice was measured by three items selected from the Respect for Family subscale of the Family Obligation Scale (Fuligni, Tseng, & Lam, 1999). The three selected items were chosen because of their relevance to the values of sacrificing for the sake of family. Participants were asked to indicate how much importance they placed on these statements on a 5-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 (“not at all important”) to 5 (“very important”). An example item was, “In general, how important is it to you that you make sacrifices for the family.” The average score of these three items was used to indicate levels of willingness to sacrifices. The Cronbach’s alpha level of the three item-scores was .51 in this study.


The Korean American youth in this study were largely dominant in the English language. An examination of their self-reported language fluency ratings showed that 59.4% reported that they were better in English; 18.3% reported that their language abilities were equal in Korean and English; and 21.3% reported that they were better in Korean. Of note, the sample showed a relatively higher mean score on their heritage (i.e., Korean) culture identification of 7.16 (SD= 1.33), compared to the mean score on their mainstream (i.e., American) culture identification of 6.63 (SD=1.25).

Zero order bivariate correlation analyses were completed (see Table 2) to test if the variables were correlated with each other. Results indicated that the difference in Korean versus American cultural identification scores was significant and positively correlated with willingness to sacrifice (r=.15, p=.04), but that the difference of language ability was not significantly correlated with willingness to sacrifice (r=-.08, n.s.).

A hierarchical multiple regression model was then used to determine whether language ability moderated the association between difference in cultural identification and level of willingness to sacrifice. The result of the analysis is presented in Table 3. Following the guidelines outlined by Baron and Kenny (1986), an interaction term (i.e., difference of cultural identification x difference of language ability) was added to the model in an effort to test for the moderation effect. Both predictor and moderator variables were centered before calculating the interaction term to reduce multicollinearity and ease interpretation of findings. An incremental F- test was used to determine whether the interaction accounted for a statistically significant amount of variance in the level of willingness to sacrifice.

Difference of cultural identification was entered into Step 1 and only accounted for 2.1% of the variance in the level of willingness to sacrifice (R2 =.021, F (1,195)= 4.23, β= .146, b= .060, p =.041) suggesting a significant relation between the difference of cultural identification and the level of willingness to sacrifice. The difference of language ability was then entered into Step 2 of the model. The difference of language ability uniquely and significantly explained an additional 4.1% of the variance in the level of willingness to sacrifice after controlling for the difference in cultural identification (R2 change =.041, F (1,194)= 8.469, β= -.250, b= -.101, p =.004). Finally, the interaction term was entered into Step 3 of the model to test for moderation. Results showed that the difference of language ability did not significantly moderate the relation between the difference of cultural identification and willingness to sacrifice in this study (R2 change =.010, F (1,193)= 2.055, β= -.100, b= .020, p =.153).


Results showed that relative cultural identification in favor of Korean culture was positively correlated with willingness to sacrifice. Korean American high school students who identified more strongly with their heritage culture were also more willing to sacrifice for their families. This finding is consistent with previous research findings that willingness to sacrifice is one of the important traits in Korean culture (Kim & Choi, 1994). Second, relative Korean language ability was not correlated with level of willingness to sacrifice in this study. This lack of association suggests that language proficiency may not be as important to Korean American youths’ willingness to sacrifice for the family as their identification with Korean cultural values. Finally, the interaction term did not improve the model, suggesting that the difference in language ability did not impact the relation between the difference in cultural identification and the level of willingness to sacrifice.

Because over 90% the participants in the study perceived themselves as having some level of Korean language ability, the current study was unable to detect whether Korean language ability was associated with the relation between difference in cultural identification and level of willingness to sacrifice. Therefore, future studies should examine populations that do not have embedded honorification in their languages, in order to detect the influence of language in this relation. Nevertheless, this study revealed that Korean American high school students of immigrant parents differ on their level of Korean and American identification, which in turn was related to their willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the family. This finding has implication for the counseling of Korean American adolescents. It is important for counselors and service providers who work with this population to know that despite seemingly high identification with American culture, many Korean American adolescents retain a high sense of filial obligations to their parents and family. Careful assessment of both American and Korean cultural identifications as well as their bilingual language fluencies is a first step toward providing culturally sensitive services.


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