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Mass Media Use and Interpersonal Communication in the Acculturation
of International Students
Nan Zheng Master Student
Claudia Rojo Master Student
3543 Greystone Drive Apt 2115I
Austin, TX 78731
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International Communication Division
For the Markham Competition (Student Papers)
2005 AEJMC Annual Convention
Results of an e-mail survey on international students showed: (1) a
significant correlation between prior exposure to American mass media
content and attitudes toward American culture, (2) a correlation
between the type of TV show watched (news and talk shows) and views
of American culture, (3) a higher level of interpersonal
communication corresponds with a higher degree of acculturation on a
behavioral level, and (4) a collective effect of interpersonal
contacts and TV viewing on acculturation.
For many immigrants in American society, traveling the path toward
Americanization is an inevitable process in their life. Immigrants
who are being exposed to a new or unfamiliar culture may have the
feeling of "jumping into cold water". Through the process of
understanding and adapting to a new culture, they may gradually "warm
the water" by overcoming their language barrier and building a social
circle. This process is identified as acculturation.
Mass media, which are expected to be reflective of the new host
culture, play an important role in facilitating acculturation. TV,
with its relatively easy access and lower demand of language
proficiency, becomes an ideal resource for new comers such as
international students to learn the culture of host society.
Interpersonal communication is another key factor in acculturation.
It not only provides emotional support to immigrants who rely on it
for their sense of security and well-being, but also provides
feedback to help them with interpreting culture arributes.1
The present study focuses on the effect of mass media, especially TV,
and interpersonal communication on the process of acculturation.
Different from previous studies in this field, prior exposure to
American media is considered as a factor which may influence the
acculturation. Moreover, instead of approaching mass media use and
interpersonal communication as separate contributions to
acculturation, this study tended to examine their collective effect
Acculturation is the natural process of adaptation of an individual
who has been socialized in one culture and who then moves to another
culture.2 According to Kim, the communication-acculturation system is
the basic mechanism in the acculturation process. She indicated that
"among many forms of human communication, interpersonal communication
and mass media consumption are the two most salient forms in the
cultural learning process."3 Thus, communication and acculturation
are inseparable processes, and a person's communication patterns are
indicators of her or his acculturation level.
Kim developed the "communication model of cross-cultural adaptation,"
4 which suggests that if immigrants are to successfully adapt, they
must increase their host communication competence by actively
participating in the interpersonal and mass communication processes
of the host society.
The adaptive function of mass communication was clearly pointed out
in Lasswell's formulation of the mass communication functions: (1)
surveillance of the environment, (2) correlation of the components of
society in making a response to the environment, and (3) transmission
of social inheritance.5
Television, primarily because of its easy accessibility and
pervasiveness of its messages, leads individuals to adopt beliefs
that conform to the stereotyped and selective view of reality
systematically portrayed on television.6 Moreover, Shapiro and
McDonald have stated that mediated information is more likely to
exert influence on those people who have had little or no direct
contact with objects because they are lacking in a sufficient method
of evaluating information.7 Thus, television viewing may predict a
significant influence on the acculturation process.
In addition to mass communication, interpersonal communication with
members in a host society also plays an important role in the
acculturation process. Although mass media may serve as a virtually
pressure-free source of learning about the host culture, its adaptive
function is weaker than interpersonal communication.8 It is because
of the simultaneous feedback from the interpersonal environment such
as gestures, words and silence of host nationals which may
effectively help immigrants understand and correct their
Acculturation is not a new area of study, since scholars have
researched the area since the 1930s. Early studies in this field,
which were mainly conducted by anthropologists and sociologists, have
assumed communication variables as an incidental part of
acculturation.9 In these studies, the focus was on immigrants'
adjustment and acculturation to the host culture rather than on the
patterns of communication through which adjustment takes place.10
However, many communication-oriented variables were introduced in
these early studies. Graves 11, for instance, included items like
having a TV set in one's possession as part of his index in measuring
immigrant acculturation. A similar assumption was made for the
adaptive function of radio by DeFleur & Cho 12, who used the amount
of daily exposure of radio and TV as an indicator of adaptation.
Additionally, Nagata13, compared to the above studies, investigated
the most communication variables in her study of Japanese immigrants
in Chicago, and concluded there was a progressive increase in degrees
of communication participation by immigrants in the host society.
In addition, the literature showed pursuing interpersonal
relationship with the host people as a necessary condition for
effective adjustment to the host culture. A study of international
students in the United States showed that those more actively
involved with Americans expressed more satisfaction in their sojourn
experiences and had more favorable attitudes toward the United
States.14 Further, the linkage between the number of host nationals
in relation networks and cross-culture adaptation was found in
studies of foreign students and visitors in the United States and elsewhere.15
A synthesis of the previous studies led to a theoretical development
of acculturation. Kim, as a predominant scholar of cross-cultural
adaptation, built an acculturation model with a central focus on the
communication experiences of individual immigrants.16 In her study on
Korean immigrants in the Chicago area17, the communication patterns
were conceptualized on cognitive and behavioral levels. The cognitive
level is based on immigrants' cultural knowledge of the host society;
the behavioral level is observed by the immigrant's involvement in
the host society. Three determinate factors of immigrants'
communication patterns are language proficiency, acculturation
motivation, and accessibility to host communication channels. The
major conclusions were: (1) acculturation motivation, language
fluency, and interpersonal and mass media channel accessibility are
strongly correlated with an immigrant's intercultural communication
behavior; (2) the four independent variables do not affect one's
cognitive complexity directly, but are mediated by one's
interpersonal and mass communication experiences in the host society;
(3) the influence of interpersonal communication exceeds that of mass
media usage in developing a complex cognitive system in perceiving
the host society; and, (4) educational background, sex, time among
the host society, and age at the time of immigration are the key
determinants of one's language competence, acculturation motivation,
and accessibility to host communication channels.
When it comes to the acculturation studies and TV viewing, most of
the findings point to Gerbner's cultivation theory which indicated
that TV viewing creates a stereotyped view of host society. For
instance, Tan18 found that watching an American television program
was correlated to accepting stereotyped traits about Americans. Since
a television program was the only or primary source of information
about American culture, his study showed that the most watched
American television programs in Taiwan and Mexico, such as "Dallas"
and "Dynasty", were cultivating a negative image of the U.S. In a
recent study of international college students, the connection
between levels of acculturation, daytime TV talk-show viewing, and
beliefs about social reality was examined. The results indicated that
international students who were heavy viewers of day-time TV talk
shows and scored low on acculturation in the United States held the
most negative views and attitudes of American society. 19
General agreements among above studies are: First, immigrants who
tend to seek interpersonal relationships with Americans in social
situations have not only a greater potential but also actually
achieve a higher level of acculturation; second, the use of American
mass media is positively related to the immigrant's acculturation.20
Besides the studies on general immigrant groups, scholars have
exhibited considerable interest in examining acculturation among
international students. Similar influence from mass media use and
interpersonal communication was found on acculturation as it occurs
among international students.21 Despite the wide-spread report of
difficulties international students encounter, the majority of
international students make reasonable adaptation to their cultural
and institutional demands.22
Although there were numerous studies on communication pattern of
acculturation, two areas have not been explored thoroughly. First,
prior host media exposure may have influence on immigrants' attitude
toward host society. A series of interviews with Korean-Americans
residents revealed that pre-immigrants experience with images of the
United States in movies, television programs, and magazines shaped
their post-immigration response to the reality life.23 Second, in
order to examine the acculturation as a complex social-cultural
process, mass media use and interpersonal communication should not be
considered separately. Kim, for example, indicated that the greater
the participation in host interpersonal communication, the greater
the participation in host mass communication.24 Thus, this study also
tended to further explore the relationship between mass media use and
interpersonal contacts with host society members through the process
Based on previous literature and theoretical consideration, this
study was designed to answer the following questions:
Q1 Does exposures to American media content prior to arriving in the
U.S. affect acculturation among international students?
Q2 How does TV viewing affect acculturation and international
students' views toward American society after they come to the U.S.?
Q3 How does international students' interpersonal communication may
Q4 Is there a collective effect of interpersonal contacts with
Americans and mass media use through acculturation among
All registered International students (total 4,506) at a large public
university in the southwest were contacted by email and invited to
complete a Web-based survey, in which mass media use, interpersonal
communication, and acculturation questions were asked. The following
measurements were used to answer the research questions.
Prior Exposure to American Mass Media. Respondents' American mass
media exposure before they came to the U.S. was measured by the
questions designed as "Before you came to the U.S., how many days a
week would you say you would watch American TV shows; read the
newspaper for U.S. news; listen to radio for American content; use
the Internet for U.S. news or entertainment." There were five
response categories to all these four types of mass media: "never",
"1-2 days" "3-4 days" "5-6 days" "everyday". The categories from
"never" to "everyday" were assigned a number from "1" to "5".
Respondents' scores on this question were a sum of numbers that
assigned to their choice on each type of mass media use. In the later
analysis, respondents were grouped as "heavy" or "light" users of
American mass media by their scores.
TV Viewing After Arrival to the U.S. The amount of time spent on TV
viewing after international students came to the U.S. was measured
with the question: "Since you arrived in the U.S., on average, how
many hours a day would you say you spend watching TV." There were
seven response choices, ranging from "less than 1 hour" to "more than
5 hours." If the respondents answered one hour or more, they were
asked a follow-up question to determine the frequency of a particular
type of TV programming they watched: news, drama, music, comedy,
sports, weather, reality, talk shows, and other. Three response
options were provided: "often", "sometimes", and "seldom or never."
The respondents were also asked "What would you say is the main
reason that you watch TV in order to identify respondents' motivation
for utilizing a particular mass medium. Four responses were given as
"For fun", "Get information", "Learn English" and "Other".
Interpersonal Communication with Americans. Time spent on
interpersonal communication was measured by asking "Since you arrived
in the U.S., on average, how many hours a day would you say you spend
talking to your friends/family?" Seven choices, ranging from "less
than an hour" to "more than 5 hours" were provided. Consequently, the
responses to these two questions were summed and categorized into
"heavy" and "light" users of the interpersonal communication.
Number of interpersonal contacts with Americans was measured by
asking "How many of your friends are American citizens?" with three
response choices of "most or all," "some," and "few or none."
Interpersonal communication based on mass media use was measured by
the question "How often do you talk about TV shows with your
friends?" Three response choices were provided: "most of the time or
always", "sometimes" and "rarely or never".
Acculturation Variables. Both attitude and behavior related to
acculturation were assessed. On the attitudinal level, participants'
attitudes of cultural themes that are portrayed on TV were measured
by an index of statements ("I like the way friendships are portrayed
on TV.";"I like the way TV portrays American families."; "I like the
way Americans discuss their sexuality on TV";"I like the way
Americans are dressed on TV." "I like the way that women are
portrayed on American TV.") With the index, there are five response
categories to all items "strongly agree", "agree", "undecided",
"disagree", and "strongly disagree". Consequently, score on these
items were summed to create two categories of attitude: positive and
negative. In addition, participants' attitudes on American culture
were directly assessed with the question "How much do you like
American culture?" Response choices were given as "very much",
"somewhat", and "not much/not at all". On the behavioral level, four
behavioral questions such as "Do you own a T-shirt with state (or
school) logo?" "Have you ever attended a sports event?" were asked.
The more behaviors they reported in this matrix question, the higher
scored on the behavioral level of acculturation.
In assessing the immigrant's English proficiency, respondents were
asked to estimate their own ability to speak and understand English
when they used the English mass media and communicated with natives.
(e.g., "How much English would you say you understand when you watch
TV?" "How much English would you say you understand when you listen
to conversation between your American friends?").In addition, the
survey also asked international students to report their TOEFL score.
The correlation coefficient between the self-report English
efficiency and self-reported TOEFL scores was .54 (P<.001).
Respondents were asked to report how long they have been lived in the
U.S.. The length of the respondents stay was broken into three
categories (1=1 to 2 years, 2=2.1 to 4.5 years and 3=4.6 to 26 years).
Sample Profile Total 178 respondents have evenly split between males
and females. Half of the respondents have lived in the U.S. for less
than three years. High English proficiency was shared by around 80%
of the respondents.25 The average amount of time for daily TV viewing
was one hour.
Prior Exposure to American Mass Media and Acculturation. Table 1
shows that there is a relationship between American media use prior
to coming to the U.S. and respondents' views on American culture. For
international students who had access to American media before they
came to the U.S., heavy American media users (84%) are more likely
than light users (45%) to report that they very much or somewhat like
Relationship Between American Media Use Prior to Coming to the U.S.
and View on American Culture (%)
American Media Use Prior to Coming to the U.S.
View on American Culture
Like it Very Much/
Somewhat Like It
Not Like It much/
Not Like It at All
X2=8.623 df=2 P<.05
While a relationship was found between media use and views on
American culture, no such relationship was found between prior
exposure to TV, specifically, and international students' views of
TV Viewing After Arrival to the U.S. and Acculturation. Although no
significant correlation is found between total TV viewing time and
any acculturation variables, news and talk show viewing yield
significant results for respondents' view on American culture.
Analysis revealed that international students who often watch talk
shows are more likely to have a positive view on cultural themes
portrayed on TV. Compared to 20% who seldom or never watch talk show,
47% of international students who often watch talk shows hold a
positive view on cultural themes portrayed on TV. Eighty percent of
participants who seldom or never watch talk shows have a negative
view on TV-portrayed cultural themes. (X2=10.916 df=2 P<.01) A
similar result is observed on TV news viewing. Compared to 49% who
seldom or never watch news, there are 69% of respondents who often
watch news on TV hold a positive view on TV-portrayed cultural
elements. (X2=8.393 df=2 P<.05)
International students' length of stay in the U.S. is significantly
correlated with their motivation of TV viewing. (See Table 2)
International students who stayed longer tended to use television for
information seeking, while those who had only lived in the U.S. for
one to two years, reported watching television mainly to learn English.
Relationship Between International Students' Length of Stay in the
U.S. and Motivation of TV Viewing (%)
Length of Stay in the U.S.
Motivation of TV Viewing
Watching TV for Fun
Watching TV for Information c
Watching TV for Learning English c
Watching TV for Other Reasons
X2=16.411 df=8 P < .05
Table 3 examines the relationship between respondents' attitude on
TV-portrayed cultural themes and their view on American culture.
International students' attitudes toward cultural themes portrayed on
TV corresponded with their attitudes toward American culture. For
example, international students who had a positive view of cultural
themes portrayed on TV tended to like American culture more than
those who had negative view toward such themes. Twenty-one percent of
respondents who held a positive view of cultural themes reported
liking American culture very much, while only 8% of those who had a
negative view provided the same answer.
Relationship Between International Students' Attitude on TV-portrayed
Culture Themes and Views on American Culture (%)
Attitude on Cultural Themes Portrayed on TV
View on American Culture
Like it very much
Somewhat like it
Not like it much/
not like it at all
X2=12.996 df=2 P<.01
Interpersonal Communication and Acculturation. Having American
friends is also related to views on American culture. International
students who said "most of all" (38%) of their friends were Americans
were more likely than international students who said "some" (18%) or
a "few or none" (2%) of their friends were Americans to say they very
much like American culture. (See Table 4.)
Relationship Between the Number of American Friends and View on
American Culture (%)
Number of American Friends
Most of All
A Few or None
View on American Culture
Like It Very Much
Somewhat Like It
Not Much Like It
X2=34.455 df=4 P<.01
Additionally, international students who spent more time talking with
their friends and families are considered heavy users of
interpersonal communication. This group of people is more likely to
score high on the behavioral level of acculturation. Compared to 29%
of light users of the interpersonal communication who scored high on
behavioral level of acculturation, 45% of heavy user scored high on
behavioral level of acculturation. (X2=4.338 df=1 P<.05)
Collective Effect of Interpersonal Contacts and TV Viewing on
Acculturation. Frequency of talking about TV shows with friends was
found as an intervening variable26 between number of American friends
and view on American culture.
To determine frequency of talking about TV shows with friends as a
consequences of number of American friends and determinant of view on
American culture, one must first establish that significant
relationship exist between each two-variable pair: number of American
friends and view on American culture; number of American friends and
frequency of talking about TV shows with friends; frequency of
talking about TV shows with friends and view on American culture. If
significant relationships are found, the variable that is
hypothesized as intervening must be held constant and the statistical
relationship between number of American friends and view on American
culture must vanish.
Significant relationships between the three pairs of variables were
found. Respondents who have more American Friends held a more
positive view on American culture(See Table 4), and also tended to
talk about TV show more frequently (See Table 5). The frequency of
talking about TV shows is positively related to respondents' view on
American culture. (See Table 6)
Relationship Between the Number of American Friends and Frequency of
Talking About TV Shows with Friends(%)
Number of American Friends
Most of All
Few or None
Frequency of Talking About TV Shows (%)
Rarely or Never
X2=14.332 df=4 P<.05
Relationship Between the Frequency of Talking About TV Shows and
Views on American Culture (%)
Frequency of Talking about TV Shows
Rarely or never
View on American Culture
Like It Very Much
Somewhat Like It
Not Much Like It
Partial support for an intervening variable was found in the category
of "always" talking about TV shows with friends. Thus, when the
respondents reported to "always" talk about TV shows with their
friends, the frequency of talking about TV shows served as an
intervening variable between the number of American friends and their
views toward American culture.
For many international students who have not lived in the U.S., it is
often the case that the American media content is the only or main
source of information they receive about American
culture. Therefore, not surprisingly, the current study revealed a
significant correlation between international students' exposure to
American mass media prior to arriving in the U.S. and their views of
In this study, the cultivation effect of TV viewing was observed in
the acculturation process. International students' attitudes toward
themes of American culture presented on TV were consistent with their
view about American culture. A relationship between particular types
of TV show and acculturation was also found. Both TV news and talk
shows were positively correlated with international students' views
of American culture.
Moreover, the current study revealed that the length of stay in the
U.S. had influence on international students' motivation of TV
viewing. International students who lived in the U.S. for a shorter
period of time tended to use TV as a language learning tool. Since
language proficiency is a key element in acculturation process, this
finding indicated that mass media use was closely related with
international students' cultural adaptation.
Kim found that interpersonal channels have greater adaptation
function than the mass media.27 Results of the current study
supported this statement. While mass media use correlated to
attitudinal level of acculturation, interpersonal communication was
found related to both behavioral and attitudinal levels of
acculturation among international students. The sufficient feedback
provided by interpersonal communication may help international
students improve their understanding of a particular host culture,
thus heading toward a higher level of acculturation.28
The discovery that talking about TV shows with friends as an
intervening variable between international students' numbers of
American friends and their view on American culture is the most
striking finding in this study. This collective effect of mass media
use and interpersonal communication in the acculturation process
suggest that aside from functioning independently, mass communication
and interpersonal communication can also intertwine in the process of
Two issues should be considered upon the evaluation of the finding.
Although a correlation between mass media use and acculturation is
found in the study, there is no conclusive evidence of cause and
effect. Perhaps Gudykunst and Y. Kim29 best summarized their
relationship: the degree to which strangers adapt to the host culture
depends on their personal and social communication processes. At the
same time, the adaptive changes that have already taken place are
reflected in the strangers' communication patterns.
As a study of international students, the sample's two unique
characteristics 30 must be considered when interpreting the results.
Since some international students' reason for studying abroad is that
the foreign country can offer them something that their native
country cannot, they may concede some partial superiority to the host
society. This may explain why this group tends to have a positive
view on American culture. Further, usually well-educated,
international students tend to have a more realistic view of the host
society than other immigrant groups. This is why their perception of
the host society may not be so easily affected by TV's unrealistic
portrayal of the host society. With a generally good English
proficiency, the language proficiency's impact on acculturation is
not observed in this study.
In order to test and modify the communication model of acculturation,
future research should be conducted on different immigrant groups'
acculturation to different types of cultures. Moreover, the way of
measuring acculturation should be continually molded to better
represent new developments in acculturation research and the
transient nature of cultures.
1.Young Yum Kim, Communication and cross cultural adaptation: an
integrative theory (Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters LTD,1988), 107
2. Young Yum Kim. "Toward an interactive theory of
communication-acculturation," Communication Yearbook. 3(1979): 435-453.
3. Young Yum Kim, "Communication patterns of foreign immigrants in
the process of Acculturation," Human Communication Research 4 (1,1977): 66-77.
4.Young Yum Kim, Communication and cross cultural adaptation: an
integrative theory (Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters
LTD,1988), 79, figure 6
5. Harold D. Lasswell, "The structure and function of communication
in society," The communication of ideas, ed. Lyman Bryson, (New York:
6. Denis McQuail, McQuail's Mass Communication Theory (4th Ed.) (London: SAGE
Publication 2000), 465
7. Michael A. Shapiro and Daniel G. McDonald. "I'm not a real doctor,
but I play one in virtual reality: Implications of virtual reality
for judgments about reality," Journal of Communication 42(4, Autumn
8. Young Yum Kim, Communication and cross cultural adaptation: an
integrative theory, 115
9. Giyoshi Nagata, A statistical approach to the study of
acculturation of an ethnic group based on communication oriented
variables: The case of Japanese Americans in Chicago. (Doctoral
dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 1969).
10. June Ock Yum, "Communication Diversity and Information
Acquisition among Korean Immigrants in Hawaii", Human Communication
Research 8(winter 1982): 154–169.
11. Theodore D. Graves, "Acculturation, access, alcohol in a
tri-ethnic country," American Anthropologist 59(1967):306-321.
12. DeFleur, M.L., & Cho, S.C., "Assimilation of Japanese born women
in an American city," Social Problems 4(1957):244-257.
13. Giyoshi Nagata, A statistical approach to the study of
acculturation of an ethnic group based on communication oriented
variables: The case of Japanese Americans in Chicago.
14. and 15 see Young Yum Kim, Communication and cross cultural
adaptation: an integrative theory p109
16. Young Yum Kim, Communication and cross cultural adaptation: an
integrative theory, 79 figure 6
17. Young Yum Kim, "Communication patterns of foreign immigrants in
the process of Acculturation,"
18. Alexis S. Tan, Sarrina Li, and Charles Simpson, "American TV and
social stereotypes of Americans in Taiwan and Mexico," Journalism
Quarterly 63(winter 1986): 809-814.
19. Hyung Jin Woo and Joseph R.Dominick, "Acculturation, cultivation,
and daytime TV Talk shows," Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly
20. Paul N.Lakey, "Acculturation: A review of the literature,"
Intercultural Communication Studies 7 (2, 2003):103-118
21.Flora Keshishian, "Acculturation, Communication, and the U.S. Mass
Media: The Experience of an Iranian Immigrant," The Howard Journal of
22. Church, Austin. T.: 1982, "Sojourner adjustment", Psychological
23. Paul Messaris and Jisuk Woo, "Images Vs.reality in
Korean-Americans' responses to mass-mediated depictions of the United
States," Cultural studies in Mass Communication 8 (1991):74-90
24. Young Yum Kim, Communication and cross cultural adaptation: an
25. Eighty percent of the respondents scored 600 or more on
paper-based TOEFL test (perfect score 677), 79% who take the
computer-based TOEFL test (perfect score 300) scored 260 or higher.
On the self-report English proficiency, the average score is 4.00,
with the perfect score 5.
26. Morris Rosenberg, The logic of survey analysis(New York: Basic
The logic status of an intervening variable is that it viewed as a
consequence of the independent variable and as a determinant of the
dependent variable. To establish a variable as intervening, it may be
noted, requires the presence of three asymmetrical relationships: (1)
the original relationship between the independent and dependent
variables;(2) a relationship between the independent variable and the
test factor;(3) a relationship between the test factor and the
dependent variable. When the test factor is controlled, the
significant relationship between independent and dependent variable
should be vanished.
27 Young Yum Kim. "Toward an interactive theory of
communication-acculturation," Communication Yearbook.(1979)
28 Young Yum Kim, Communication and cross cultural adaptation: an
integrative theory (Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters LTD,1988),106-113
29. William B. Gudykunst and Young Yum Kim, Communicating with
strangers: An approach to intercultural communication. (New York:
Random House 1984), 220
30 Pool, Ith iel de Sola, "Effects of cross-national contact on
national and international ima ges." In International behavior: A
social psychological analysis, edited by Kelman, Herbert C.,106-129.
NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965.