Second Culture Acquisition

Second culture acquisition, an integral aspect of the acculturation process, is the adjustment of the immigrant to the dominant culture. In the new culture, immigrants must navigate through situations in which they have no experience, often without a grasp of the language. Immigrants must deal with changes such as alterations in diet, climate change, different customs and social practices, unfamiliar clothing, new employment, and different family composition, as the majority of their family may reside in their country of origin or in another host country. Several different models have been constructed to explain the methods immigrants use to adapt to the new culture and to highlight reasons for adaptation difficulty. All these factors must be taken into consideration when counseling an immigrant client.

Models of Adaptation

Unilinear Model

Unilinear acculturation considers adaptation to the second culture as a function of time. Individuals appear to become more acculturated the longer they are exposed to the new culture. The rate of acculturation varies depending on another aspect of time: the age of the immigrant at the time of entry. Children aged 12 and younger often become accustomed to the new culture faster than those who immigrate at an older age.

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Bilinear Model

Berry postulated that immigrants grapple with two questions: Is it valuable to maintain cultural identity and characteristics (enculturation)? and Is it valuable to maintain relationships with other groups (acculturation)? Although the answers to these questions are independent of each other, they interact, leading to four qualitatively different responses to the second culture: integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalization.

In the integration mode of adaptation, also known as biculturalism, individuals value both the original culture and the host culture and are able to balance the retention of cultural identity and relationships within the dominant society. This strategy is considered the most psychologically healthy strategy for a person to use. A person’s development of a bicultural identity is highly individualized and dependent on characteristics such as age, gender, personality, and socioeconomic status.

There are several aspects of biculturalism that positively influence mental health. The first is that the individual maintains positive attitudes toward both cultural groups. In this way, the individual is able to interact with, and gain support from, both groups (groundedness). For example, Kim and Omizo found in their study that Asian American participants who engage with the majority culture both perceive themselves as being able to cope with different cultural situations and feel that people from the majority culture view the Asian American group favorably. They also expressed more cognitive flexibility and general self-efficacy. Similarly, Kosic found that immigrants who favored the integration strategy were more socioculturally adapted than those who used the separation and marginalization strategies. Engaging with the original culture is important as well because enculturation behaviors are associated with the membership dimension of collective self-esteem (the worth placed on one’s cultural group).

Another factor that comes into play is bicultural efficacy, which is the sense that the person can live in the two groups without compromising his or her identity. This factor also influences personal relationships with both cultural groups in that people can interact with others without fear that they are betraying their identities. Another crucial part of biculturalism is the person’s ability to communicate well in both cultures. Without this ability, it is difficult to have a positive relationship with both groups and to believe that one can function well in each of them. Another facet of biculturalism is role repertoire, in which the individual has developed a range of roles and behaviors that can differ based on situational factors. This flexibility and knowledge of roles helps the individual navigate through both cultures in appropriate ways. Kosic asserts that being able to function well in both cultures helps an individual to be more psychologically adapted, exhibiting less emotional distress and psychosomatic symptoms.

In the assimilation strategy, individuals relinquish their original cultural identity and interact only with the dominant group. People who choose the assimilation strategy of acculturation may experience psychological stress caused by the weakening of ties and support to their original culture and the new and tenuous relationship with the new culture. In this mode, there is the possibility that the person will be rejected by both their original culture and the mainstream culture. It is also difficult to learn new cultural behavior and to completely immerse oneself in another cultural way of thinking and being. Unfortunately, many immigrants feel that they must reject their cultural values and adopt the values of the mainstream to be successful. Though assimilation can have some negative effects on individuals, in some ways it is healthier than the separation and marginalization modes of adaptation. For example, Kosic found that assimilated participants were more socioculturally adapted, had lower levels of emotional disorders, and had lower levels of psychosomatic symptoms than did participants who favored either separation or marginalization strategies.

In the separation mode, the opposite of assimilation, individuals value the original culture and avoid contact with the dominant culture. Kosic talks about how people who choose this strategy have been shown to have the lowest level of sociocultural adaptation when compared to all the other strategies, as well as higher levels of emotional disorder and psychosomatic symptoms when compared to assimilated and integrated participants.

In the marginalization mode, individuals have low connection with both cultures. Kim and Omizo speculated that marginalization may be the most psychologically harmful adaptive strategy because people who employ this strategy may feel isolated, as if they don’t belong anywhere. According to Kosic, those who employ this strategy exhibit low levels of socio-cultural adaptation and higher levels of emotional disorder and psychosomatic symptoms.

Ample research, such as research done by Berry, points to integration as being the best alternative for immigrants; however, integration can be achieved only in a society that values multiculturalism. Societal multiculturalism requires low degrees of discrimination and prejudice, acknowledgment of the rights of any group to live in a culturally different manner within the larger group, positive attitudes between groups, an attachment to the greater society among all groups, and recognition of cultural diversity as an asset. Program development grounded in research on acculturation and intergroup relations can help immigrants and host cultures avoid unnecessary acculturative stress and intergroup conflict and can promote positive adaptation and mutual accommodation.

Nonlinear Model

Roysircar proposed an adaptation of Berry’s model that is bilinear but contextual, which makes it a nonlinear model. Essentially, individuals will move across Berry’s four acculturation modes depending on the nature of the situation. This model takes into account varied human experiences; no one acts the same way consistently, and context plays a large role in behavior. A case in point is illustrated by a foreign-born female immigrant from India who has lived in the United States for 27 years. The prejudice and racism she has experienced in the United States may influence her to lean toward the separation mode of adaptation to make herself resilient, while her identification with gender roles as a successful professional leads her to assimilate a feminist orientation of the dominant culture. However, she is very conscious that she is a feminist of color with different priorities, which sets her apart from many White American feminists. As a result, she cannot relate completely to either her original Asian Indian culture or the White dominant culture when dealing with gender issues, so she falls into the marginalization mode of adaptation. In addition, most of the time, she is able to reach out and interact with the dominant culture while still retaining her cultural identity, which shows integration. So, depending on the situation, all four acculturation modes are functional adaptations for this Indian woman. The idea of multiple options and solutions in immigrant adaptation is important in therapy, as the therapist needs to know the adaptation strategies immigrant clients use most frequently or less so, when they use these, and why. Consciously giving up the stereotyped notion that “one size fits all,” the therapist seeks from clients their cultural reasonings, while probing into aspects of the second culture that they are struggling with, as well as aspects of the old culture they wish to retain or leave behind.

Second Culture Acquisition and Mental Health

Second culture acquisition is a stressful process. Acculturative stress is exhibited in the reduction of health status for those trying to navigate through new cultural experiences and it occurs when the individual has insufficient resources to adapt to the new culture. Berry found that the groups under the most stress were those who were the least similar to, but still had some contact with, the dominant group and who preferred the separation mode of adaptation.

Adapting to a new culture can also be stressful for immigrants because it may negatively impact existing mental health problems in an individual. For example, immigration can exacerbate existing posttraumatic stress disorder in political refugees because of the added stress of the person being in an unfamiliar place, feeling alienated because of prejudicial and discriminatory treatment in the host culture, feeling isolated because no one wants to listen to their story of pain and horror or even knows about their sociopolitical history, and being separated from their own culture and kinship. As a result, therapists must treat the multiple complex stressors in the psychopathology of immigrant clients. In addition, the culturally competent therapist serves as a cultural broker and bridge for immigrant clients, advocating their access to resources and mental health care, as well as showing them how to use these resources.

Bicultural Stress

Bicultural stress refers to the stress that U.S.-born second generation (and later) immigrants experience while trying to negotiate between their two inherited cultures. For example, a second-generation Asian American immigrant would be born into an Asian family and be pressured to adhere to Asian traditions while simultaneously being pressured to adopt American values and practices. This stress may cause tension in a family where the parents and children have very different strategies in dealing with the dominant culture. An example of this is if the children identify primarily with the dominant culture and favor more of an assimilation approach and the parents struggle to maintain their original cultural identity and favor an approach closer to separation. Bicultural skills are extremely important in promoting the mental health of U.S.-born second and later generation immigrants and the lack, or perceived lack, of these skills causes stress for the individual. Sodowsky and Lai described two dimensions involved in bicultural stress: the interpersonal and the intrapersonal dimensions. The interpersonal dimension, which deals with intercultural competency, is exemplified by having cultural conflicts with one’s own cultural group and/or the dominant culture. The intrapersonal dimension deals with acculturative distress such as that initiated by identity crisis, sense of inferiority in one’s cultural group, feeling marginalized by one or both cultures, and anger toward either group.

As implied, bicultural stress is important to consider in counseling. Therapists are cautioned against invalidating the impact of bicultural stressors, such as the stress of becoming proficient in two languages, and the incongruence between home culture and the dominant culture. For example, when a counselor says “keep your own culture,” as well as “adopt a second culture,” it leads to mixed messages for a psychologically impaired mental health client, which may lead to an unclear understanding of the counseling relationship and unpleasant feelings toward mental health care on the part of a minority client. Because immigrant children and adults are less likely to use mental health services and have higher rates of counseling dropout compared with White clients, it becomes paramount for counselors to carefully address and consider all of a minority client’s motives for seeking mental health assistance. Therefore, it is important for therapists to determine if bicultural, bilingual, and familial stressors are too great (with the potential to lead to more serious issues such as depression, suicide, substance abuse, violence, running away) before reframing contextual multiplicity as positive challenges universal for immigrants.

Factors That Facilitate Second Culture Acquisition

Several different factors can make second culture acquisition easier and reduce acculturative stress. The first and perhaps most obvious factor is English proficiency. The immigrant will find it much easier to utilize services and to function in the dominant culture if he or she is able to communicate with the people in the dominant society. People of a higher socioeconomic status also have an easier time with second culture acquisition and less acculturative stress because they have more access to resources because of their financial status. Individuals’ motivation for immigration also makes a difference in the stress experienced; people who immigrate voluntarily fare better than people who are forced to relocate to escape persecution or international students making only temporary contact. These factors are important to consider in therapy to determine what coping resources the individual has at his or her disposal, and knowing these factors can help the counselor better predict how the individual will adapt.

The positive complement to bicultural stress is bicultural skills. Living in and balancing two or more cultures is worthy of praise, admiration, and acknowledgment and can be demonstrative of resiliency, which in turn can assist with reducing the effects of acculturative stress. Simultaneously functioning in two distinct cultures also can help build skills that immigrant youngsters can use in the future for adjusting and thriving in a variety of systems (e.g., jobs/careers, personal relationships, new communities, college/university, etc.). For example, Feliciano studied the academic success of immigrant Asian and Latino/a students as measured by their likelihood of dropping out of high school. She found that bicultural students, those that had not abandoned their native culture and language while accepting their need to succeed in mainstream society, were more successful in school and were more positive about their future. She indicated that it was these youngsters’ skills at finding support in both cultures that led them to be better adjusted than those who were polarized toward the native culture or mainstream society. Other researchers have reported that bicultural youths demonstrate fewer conduct disorders and also less depression than their peers who are fully assimilated into mainstream society. In addition, bicultural youth may display more effective methods for functioning in various sociocultural situations than their fully assimilated peers.

Second Culture Acquisition and Counseling

Second culture acquisition is a complex and often stressful process for immigrants of all ages. Therefore, it is important for the therapist to be aware of the trials and confusion an individual faces while struggling to integrate two value systems and ways of living that may be strikingly different from each other. It is also important that mental health professionals not fail to validate the cultural conflicts immigrant families may encounter at home as a result of parents who wish their children to adhere to traditional values, experiences at school or work where these immigrants may feel pressure from teachers and employers to acculturate to U.S. customs, or in social settings (e.g., after-school programs, social functions, organized sports, community activities) where peers may harass them for “being different” or “not talking right.” Therefore, it is recommended that counselors implement individual and group counseling goals centered on increasing the awareness and reframing of immigrants’ bicultural skills and using bicultural skills in various academic, employment, and social settings to cope with cultural conflicts.

In addition, counselors, therapists, and psychology trainers are encouraged to highlight the personal-social and cognitive skills (e.g., speaking two languages, managing different sets of nonverbal cues, understanding how cultures can coexist even if they differ on certain values and beliefs, etc.) necessary for someone to balance practices and values of two cultures. Counselors may also elect to focus on the strength and resilience of their clients in the face of juggling a traditional culture at home as well as a new and developing American culture in their schools and jobs. For example, children can help parents understand that they are learning how to balance both their home culture and their American culture, which is more desirable in today’s economy, or they may be encouraged to share with teachers and peers how their bicultural perspectives frame their views of history or even fashion trends.


  1. Berry, J. (2001). A psychology of immigration. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 615-631.
  2. Feliciano, C. (2001). The benefits of biculturalism: Exposure to immigrant culture and dropping out of school among Asian and Latino youth. Social Science Quarterly, 82, 865-879.
  3. Kim, B. S. K., & Omizo, M. M. (2006). Behavioral acculturation and enculturation and psychological functioning among Asian American college students. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 12, 245-258.
  4. Kosic, A. (2002). Acculturation attitudes, need for cognitive closure, and adaptation of immigrants. Journal of Social Psychology, 142, 179-201.
  5. Roysircar, G. (2004). Counseling and psychotherapy for acculturation and ethnic identity concerns with immigrant and international student clients. In T. B. Smith (Ed.), Practicing multiculturalism: Affirming diversity in counseling and psychology (pp. 255-275). Boston: Pearson.
  6. Sodowsky, G. R., & Lai, E. W. M. (1997). Asian immigrant variables and structural models of cross-cultural distress. In A. Booth, A. C. Crouter, & N. Landale (Eds.), Immigration and the family: Research and policy on U.S. immigrants (pp. 211-237). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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