Language barriers damage social ties, health in older Korean-Americans

Kate Thackrey

A series of new studies by UT researchers found that older Korean immigrants with limited English skills are significantly more vulnerable to health problems and social isolation than English speakers.

The studies found that 70 percent of Korean-American immigrants over 60 years old have limited English proficiency, and 25 percent showed marked social isolation. According to the National Council on Aging, only 17 percent of the older American general population is socially isolated. 

The study’s lead author, Yuri Jang of the School of Social Work, said the amount of Korean-Americans with limited English proficiency has been increasing over recent years and complicates access and use of healthcare. 

“There is an amazing need for language assistance,” Jang said. “If [Korean-Americans] don’t have language capacity, but they have to use health services, imagine the challenges. If they don’t have any support systems, it’s really impossible.”

The studies showed that Korean-Americans who struggle with English were significantly more likely to have limited physical activity, poor health and depression than English-speaking peers. 

Limited language proficiency was also a significant barrier to forming friendships, which correlated with higher levels of overall social isolation. 

Jang has spent her career studying underrepresented ethnic groups. She started collecting data for the paper eight years ago in Florida, replicated the survey in New York in 2010 and continued in Austin in 2013 after she moved to UT. 

Jang said the representation of Asian ethnic groups as the ‘model minority’ often doesn’t take into account limited English speakers.

“The impression of all Asian-Americans is that they are highly educated, problem-free [and] they have good social network systems in the their families,” Jang said. “The reason is that national surveys usually capture English-speaking Asian-Americans. Those that have problems remain unreached.”

Jang’s surveys included both English and Korean versions, but she said that all of her participants preferred to take surveys in Korean, regardless of English proficiency.

Environmental science junior Zihao Zhang, from Nanjing, China, said it can be difficult to keep up when professors expect students to share a common culture.

“Some professors will assume you have some kind of knowledge that most Americans will have but a foreigner won’t have,” Zhang said. “During the lecture the professor will speak very fast — it does influence my quality of learning.” 

Over 20 percent of UT students identified as Asian for the 2015-2016 school year, according the UT Admissions Office.

Jang is also finishing up on a separate report on Asian-Americans in Austin as part of a study requested by the City of Austin Asian American Quality of Life Advisory Commission, which will be available to the public soon.  

Chair of the commission Richard Yuen said the study is the first city-wide research project looking at the Asian-American population in the US.

“So many people are unaware that the Asian-American Austinite community is quite large and is growing exponentially,” Yuen said. “But nobody actually understands who they are, what their needs are, where they are and how the city and other organizations can help increase their quality of life here in Austin.”

90,000 Asian-Americans lived in Austin in 2013, a number which doubled from 2000, according to a resolution by the Austin City Council.

Looking to the future, Jang said she hopes her work will create benefits in the real world.

“As a researcher, there is a limited capacity that I can actually act on,” Jang said. “In terms of the action side I was severely limited, and I feel so bad because there is a population in need of service.”