Growing up as the child of immigrant parents

In recent years, inward migration to Ireland has vastly increased. With this has come the increase in the number of children born in Ireland to non-Irish parents. In 2022, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI) found that 14% of children had one parent born abroad and one Irish-born parent, and a further 19% had both parents born outside of Ireland. 

While it can be expected that immigrant children will experience a number of challenges once they migrate to a new country, people may be surprised to learn that children born to migrant parents also face a number of obstacles and challenges while growing up in a country in which their parents weren’t born. Although both groups of children may experience similar challenges, they by no means share the same obstacles or experiences. Through a series of interviews conducted with people of migrant-origin, I have attempted to capture what it’s like growing up as the child of migrant parents.

“Speak in English!”

Language (and in turn, accent) can be the most obvious difference between those born to Irish parents and those born to parents who grew up, and were raised, in a different country. While children born to Irish-born parents began hearing English from the day they were born, and in turn learned the language quite easily, those of us born to foreign parents did not have the same experience. In their study, the ERSI found that 11% of children in Ireland were born to families where neither parent (or lone parent, if that was the case) was a native English speaker. 

These children that were born to non-native English speakers are more likely to learn their parent’s mother tongue at home, and English as a second language. Many of these children don’t begin learning English until they start primary school and are not exposed to the language until the age of 4. These migrant-origin children with non-native English speakers can therefore end up learning English by watching television, or, sometimes, from their parents who, more often than not, have an accent when they speak in English. This greatly impacts the child’s accent, along with their level of English, at least before they begin primary school.

Sarah, who was born in Ireland to Serbian parents, remembers that “I usually got [told] that I have an American accent, but that was purely because I was watching Nickelodeon or Disney Channel. Like, that was where I learned most of my English. School and TV.”

While some children may lose their ‘foreign’ accent and even gain an Irish accent once they begin school, others might not. This could be because of many reasons, one of which is the people they go to school with. If children are constantly surrounded by other migrant-origin children, it is unlikely they will develop an Irish accent. As a result of this, migrant-origin children may have lower self-esteem, particularly with regards to the way they speak, than children born to Irish-born or native-English speaking parents.

Again, the ERSI found that by the age of three, 60% of migrant-origin children were ranked in the bottom fifth of test takers on the English vocabulary test. As children to migrant parents are likely to have less exposure to English in the household, compared to the households that exclusively speak English, this could greatly impact their performance and confidence in schools. Pedro, born to Brazilian parents, recalls “never wanting to talk in class because all we ever spoke at home was Portuguese. I just didn’t want people to make fun of the way I spoke English.”

Although these migrant-origin children may have difficulties with the English language, they are also trying to learn a second, or even a third language at the same time- the language of their parents’ country. Not all children, however, feel the same about learning a new language. Many of the oldest children I spoke to mentioned that their youngest sibling was not as interested in learning their mother tongue. Andreea, born to Romanian parents, does comment though, that “I think language is what creates a sense of belonging… if I didn’t speak Romanian, I don’t think I’d have a sense of belonging.”

Go back to your country!”: where do I belong?

For me, a sense of belonging is one of the biggest challenges faced by children who were born to immigrant parents. In her Vice article, Nicole Clark notes that migrant-born children must “learn to be flexible, able to withstand constantly straddling the culture their parents came from and the culture they’re currently growing up in.” 

In the home, many migrant-origin children are brought up and surrounded by their parents’ culture, from food to language, to way of life, they often live within a culture without actually having to live in the country from which it comes from. When they leave the home and begin attending school, many of these children encounter a very different culture, and they often struggle to fit into any one culture and way of life. 

While for some children born to migrant parents, language gives them a way of feeling like they belong somewhere, for others, it creates a sort of ‘in-between’ space, a sense of not truly belonging in one place or in another. Francisco, who was born in Ireland to Argentinian parents, notes that “my Spanish isn’t good enough or fluent enough to feel like I can fully fit in in Argentina, but when I speak English… well, I don’t really sound Irish either, even though I was born here.” For many people like Francisco, language can cause a sense of doubt, a feeling of ‘is there anywhere I really belong?’

Many migrants, when asked where ‘home’ is, will answer one of two ways. They will either state the country from which they migrated from, or the country they migrated to. But one thing is for sure, they will state this with absolute certainty. Children of migrants often do not answer this question with as much certainty.

When asked where ‘home’ is, Thomas, who was born in Ireland to German parents, answered “Yeah, I wouldn’t really know what to tell you, both countries? Neither one… that’s a complicated question to answer.” This is not an uncommon answer to receive from someone who was born to migrant parents. It was certainly an answer I heard very often growing up in a multicultural school.

“You can’t fail!”

Many children born to immigrant parents often feel a constant pressure to have to succeed, to make the sacrifices and the trip their parents made worth it. Both throughout the interviews I conducted and my time growing up and attending multicultural primary and secondary schools, I constantly heard about, and at times experienced, the fact that oftentimes being the first born child to migrant parents came with a lot of added pressure.

Because of this pressure to succeed, many first-born, migrant-origin children attempt to make sure that they are getting the best possible grades in school to prove to their parents that their move was worth it. It almost feels like it is their job to prove that the decision to uproot their lives and move from one country to another was a good and productive one. 

Similarly, being the first-born child to immigrant parents means that, to a certain extent, the child was also the ones helping their parents to learn about life in Ireland. Andreea comments that “I guess the fact that I was helping my parents learn about Ireland all the time […] everything was new to them which was frustrating.”

Not only were they helping their parents learn about Ireland, they were also helping them learn about the Irish school system. For many first-born children, they have the task of showing their parents what is expected of them in school, as the system could be very different from the ones their parents experienced. This adds a certain amount of pressure to the already stressful academic year that many children who grew up with Irish-born parents did not experience.

But it’s worth it!

While it is not easy growing up as the child of an immigrant, it is definitely worth it! Not only do we get to experience Irish culture along with our peers, but we also get to have another, outside culture that comes with language, food, and a different way of life. Although this is an experience that cannot be easily explained or understood, it is interesting to talk to other migrant-origin children who have experienced similar situations, even if their parents are from a different country.

Are you the child of a migrant parent? Why not leave a comment about your experiences growing up.

Fern Mendoza
Fern Mendoza

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