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Multilingualism and identity

Article detailing the factors that may contribute to a multilingual child's sense of identity.
Children sat on the floor

Most researchers agree that language is integral to identity as it’s the main domain in which we think, define ourselves and present ourselves to others. A ‘multilingual identity’ is an umbrella term in that it encapsulates all linguistic identities: who I am in all of my languages.

Of course, linguistic identity does not exist in a vacuum but interacts with multiple other identities: social, cultural, familial, etc. It is extremely important that we, as practitioners, are not only aware of the existence of these multiple identities but that we are sensitive to a child’s individual linguistic identity (including a multilingual identity) and their perceived status within a given environment, such as school, and understand that this may change over time1.

Language ‘status’

All multilingual identities are valid but, unfortunately, this is not always reflected in society. For example, consider the language choices secondary school students are faced with; the vast majority are Western European languages (primarily, French, German, and Spanish) although this in no way reflects the most commonly spoken languages in the UK, which were Polish, Romanian, Panjabi and Urdu in the 2021 census. What message is this choice giving to our young multilingual students – that their language(s) doesn’t count? As practitioners, we can challenge this idea and promote and celebrate all children’s languages, at an individual and broader (eg, whole class) level.

Research shows that multilingual children use their different languages for different purposes and in different contexts and this can affect how they see each of their languages 2. For example, it’s quite common for children to speak the societal language (English in the UK) to siblings, and a heritage language to one or both parents. Many parents are keen that their children use and value their home language(s) and see a number of benefits in doing so, including preservation of the heritage culture, academic progress, career opportunities, and promotion of cross-cultural communication 3. However, other parents prefer to use the societal language because they can see that it has higher status, and they don’t want their child to be at a disadvantage. This can lead to language attrition with children growing up less and less able to speak to extended family and, potentially, losing something of their linguistic and cultural heritage.

Language brokering

Research has identified the challenges that some children face as interpreters (also called language brokers) for their parents or siblings – often in situations that are not suitable for them to be playing a quasi-adult role. Teachers may, understandably, be tempted to use multilingual children as interpreters for their parents for communication at parents’ evening or at other times. However, it is helpful to first consider the burden this puts on the child to explain things that they may not understand or may not want to share with parents. If you’d like to read further about this, there’s a helpful article in the See also section below which illuminates the challenges young people can face when asked to take on an interpreting role.

Discrimination

We also know that language background and ethnicity have a close yet complex relationship and it’s no surprise that languages considered worthy of GCSE study are those predominantly spoken by white western people. Growing up as a black or brown child in modern Britain already brings its challenges. If the language you speak, as well as the colour of your skin, places you at risk of discrimination, then this may make school – and society in general – a difficult place to be. Multilingual children have reported feeling ashamed to speak their heritage language, for fear of prejudice and judgement 4.

Educational attainment

We know as researchers that maintaining heritage languages has a large number of benefits with no cost to language development 5. Contrary to what we may read in the mainstream media, children who speak English as an additional language in the UK do not under-perform at school compared to monolingual English-speaking children (although there is a lot of variation), especially at secondary school. There is therefore no evidence-based reason not to encourage the use of home or heritage languages and, as practitioners, we have a crucial role in promoting and communicating the importance of these languages, not only to children but to parents too. Schools might do this via activities and events which highlight and celebrate heritage languages, such as after-school language clubs. SLTs might do this by asking about, and if possible testing in, heritage languages. However we choose to do it, there is no doubt that practitioners working with multilingual children have an important role to play.

Discuss

How do you think identity and social well-being affect academic development in multilingual children? Please share your thoughts in the Comments area below.

References

  1. Evans, M. & Liu, Y. (2018) The Unfamiliar and the Indeterminate: Language, Identity and Social Integration in the School Experience of Newly-Arrived Migrant Children in England, Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 17:3, 152-167.
  2. Flynn, N. (2019) Teachers and Polish children: capturing changes in the linguistic field, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 40:1, 65-82
  3. King, K., & Fogle, L. (2006). Raising bilingual children: Common parental concerns and current research. CALdigest Series, 2, 2-3.
  4. Kaveh, Y. A. & Lenz, A. (2022) “I’m embarrassed and scared to speak a different language”: The complex language beliefs and emotions of bi/multilingual children of immigrants in monolingual U.S. schools, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development.
  5. Byers-Heinlein, K., & Lew-Williams, C. (2013). Bilingualism in the early years: What the science says. LEARNing landscapes, 7(1), 95-112.
© University of Reading
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Understanding Multilingual Children's Language Development

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