What Happens to Second-Generation International Children?

by expert · 2 comments

By Bettina Ribes-Gil
Photo credit: CarbonNYC


As a follow-up to my article on Immigration and Language, the question arises of what happens to the second-generation international children?

A definition of a second-generation international child is that at least one parent was born outside the host country. Purists require both parents to be foreign-born. The children themselves can be native-born or foreign-born and brought to the host country by their parents.

The focus of this article will initially be on children of professional parents employed in international organizations and other multinational companies worldwide (based on a survey carried out in Switzerland among officials working for the United Nations’ family of organizations). It will be supplemented by comments about third-generation children, and will conclude with further research regarding the adjustment process of children from modest socio-economic backgrounds.  The survey results reflect answers to questions pertaining to nationality changes, language(s) adopted, education, careers chosen and integration status.


The parents in the group who were surveyed had obviously accepted to work outside their own countries for varying periods, separated from the core family and the society from which they originated. Their children, however, had had no choice and when faced with such expatriate situations it is important to monitor their cultural adaptation and progress when immersed in this multicultural and peripatetic sphere while still reliant on their parents who are attached to their professional life. They have to adjust to communities formed by people from different cultures, social classes, who speak different languages and have their own traditions and beliefs.  Besides they are often children of multicultural parents who frequently met outside their own environment and married someone of a different nationality, mother tongue and from a dissimilar background.

This is corroborated by the survey results indicating that over 40% of the parents were of different nationalities and of those over 25% had different mother tongues.  The children were often able to obtain several nationalities depending on the administrative facilities granted by the countries concerned, consequently one or two through their parents and often a third — the one of the country where they were born.  Later, some also acquired the nationality of the host country in which they ultimately resided, if different from their country of birth, having been resident long enough to comply with application rights and often having completed their education there.


Continual exposure to different educational systems and changes in ethnic student composition can make stable relationships difficult to maintain and can also be the origin of gaps in any given cultural area.  However, this is counterbalanced by the children developing agility of mind with the capacity to survive and adjust to new environments and the facility to capitalize on their potential.

Problems can arise over the various educational preferences to be considered:  the local private or state school or boarding school?  If boarding school is the chosen option, to facilitate uninterrupted schooling, then should it be in the host country or,  in the case of multinational marriages, the home country of the father or of the mother, or even elsewhere?  This very much depends on what is available in the countries concerned, but it is paramount that both parents agree on what is in the best interests of each child.

Do second-generation children glean any advantages from their international education when deciding on their tertiary education and where to continue further studies?

This is a dichotomy:  On the one hand they gain if account is taken of their linguistic capabilities, extensive geopolitical awareness, facility for interpersonal communication and being accustomed to travelling and cultivating an open-minded attitude to different ways of life.  On the other hand the frequent changes of schools, location, friends and mores can prove an unsettling influence.  From the survey it emerged that the children’s choice of university was normally influenced either by the curricula offered or whether they wished to remain where their parents were located, whereas others preferred to spread their wings and study in a new country. Obviously linguistic skills have to be taken into consideration.

Language skills

Second-generation children are invariably good linguists by virtue of their early exposure to several languages. The survey reveals that in multilingual families the child’s mother tongue is often other than that of either parent.   UNESCO defines “mother tongue” as the language of secondary education, but even so the language spoken does not necessarily lead to culture identification.  Nevertheless, linguistic skills foster comprehension and tolerance when proficiency is acquired through interpersonal relationships with nationals of the host country such as neighbours, shopkeepers and other service personnel.

There is also the influence of local television, cinema and radio, as well as the child being regularly exposed to discussions related to world events and having the opportunity to meet and listen to the many nationalities in the parents’ specific field of employment in a foreign language environment. A point mentioned in the survey was fear that multilingualism would create complications for a child, only to be proved inexact in practice except in rare cases.


Identity is the combination of multiple influences, both external and intrapersonal, which form a cultural whole, thus integration for expatriate children is a topic on its own, but to summarize it can be divided into the local, international and home country communities.  There are parents who feel strongly that they should return to their own home country at some stage to prevent their children from losing all contact with their roots, extended family, national culture, etc.  This applies particularly to those from countries where the individual cultures and religions are deeply entrenched and more conservative.  Other children manage to integrate totally into the culture of their parents’ work environment when the tour of duty covers long periods and therefore decide to settle and put down roots.   The “home” country is often a sentimental concept rather more than a rational choice.


Roots, not only linguistic but also cultural, were mentioned many times in the survey by second-generation children.  The problems include communicating with relatives in the home country when it is difficult to re-establish roots. For example, when children speak with a foreign accent, due to lack of residence in the home country, they are often regarded as a foreigner by the native population.

Many children from traditional cultures acquire nationalities with ethnicities so different from their own that they are confused as to where they really belong.  Answers to the survey included several children admitting they were at home everywhere but home as such was in fact nowhere – they are citizens of the world, experiencing a kind of emotional schizophrenia.  Curiously enough the majority replied that in spite of this lack of feeling of “roots”, they nevertheless had no wish or intention of returning to their parents’ home country.

Several factors help to create stability: adopting the local language of the host country, forming national roots and thus creating a new identity.  Some second-generation children have interchanged the original core family for the nuclear family formed by their own marriage and the arrival of third-generation children in their chosen country.  They draw on their ability to survive and adapt to a new environment.

Third-generation children

The topic of third-generation children was also broached in the survey and one official described how his grandchildren had developed an open mind and could flick a linguistic switch to cross frontiers with no problem, which is a very reassuring reflection.  Nonetheless, efforts can be made to keep children in touch with their ethnic heritage through traditional stories, poems, songs, religious practices, culinary arts, etc.

The third generation run the danger of their linguistic and national origins fading into a distant memory and any residual sentiment only re-emerges on specific occasions in deference to their host country identities.

Second-generation children of other immigrant groups

There are divergent patterns between the respondents to the UN survey and the adaptation process of the second-generation children of immigrants from modest socio-economic backgrounds.  Their parents, seeking a better life and concentrated in areas where the demand for labour exists, have more often than not been absorbed into the host society but have not become part of it. In spite of significant differences which arise depending on nationality and social class, these children tend to integrate earlier and adopt a wholehearted commitment towards the host country.

However, there are conflicting patterns of adaptation even among immigrants issue of the same national environment.  These are contingent on the economic resources of the children’s family and their parents’ social context within the host society.  The parents approach to integration also plays a fundamental role in the successful pursuit of positive adaptation by second-generation children.  The children are often faced with having to surmount cultural and economic barriers where ethnic ties have a dominant influence affecting behavioural and attitudinal characteristics which demonstrate interest, or lack of it, in their parents’ origins.  It is important for both the community and government to provide resources to aid in their incorporation especially linguistically and to coordinate training.

In time the second generation, having abandoned their parents’ language and culture, work their way through the host state education system and into the local labour market or on to college.  Many improve socially when their economic status permits, enabling a steady transition into the middle-class mainstream, leaving them to identify with their origins only when convenient.


In spite of the segmented assimilation observed between social classes, the second-generation children share basic objectives from whatever milieu they are issue: language adaptation, education and career options as well as integration into the country of their final choice.  Various factors influence the settlement process.  The international children, supported by their socio-economic circumstances, having frequently travelled and thus accustomed to absorbing different cultures, establish themselves in a country where they can fully benefit from their accumulated experiences often linked to the university they attended be it the home country or elsewhere.

The second-generation children from a more modest background tend to concentrate on forging a new identity.  In many cases their parents have returned to the home country on retirement, but the children have usually advanced socially by way of educational attainment, making friends and finding economically satisfactory employment according them an improved social status in the host country.  Moreover the ethnicity of friends, partners or spouses and the arrival of third-generation children play a significant part in their outlook and identification.  They are willing to fully integrate while not entirely losing sight of their national heritage.

In summary the above demonstrates that on the whole the second- and third-generations who are given the opportunity to lay down roots worldwide can be considered a very fortunate category of children.

Acknowledgement is made to A. Ali and J. Martin, former senior international officials, who initiated the original survey.

Bettina Ribes Gil is a retired international official and a freelance
TEFLA certified teacher with experience in Switzerland and Spain.
She is now concentrating on writing more than teaching.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Elle December 14, 2012 at 4:53 am

This is a beautiful writing. My sister and I are second generation international children, and I completely relate to everything you have written. You have beautifully illustrated the feelings, I did not find the words for. This is beautiful. Thank you. Are you a second generation international woman too? 🙂


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