Bilingualism and Cultural Identity

Which implications does bilingualism have on the cultural identity of children?

Term Paper, 2011

7 Pages, Grade: 1,00



This paper deals with the different aspects, in which bilingualism can affect the Cultural Identity of a child. It does so by illustrating the main features of the cultural identification process and relating them to the context of bilingualism. The essay also mentions special cases in which conflicting cultures are involved, such as Japanese-American or Arabic-Hebrew bilingualism. Finally, the author draws the conclusion that the exact influence of bilingualism on a child’s Cultural Identity cannot be fully assessed, as it is a highly complex and multilayered concept. The development of Cultural Identity ultimately depends on the child’s personality and the social environment it grows up in. However, multilingualism undoubtedly fosters a deeper understanding of our globalized world.

We all know it. Media and politicians seem to tell us every day: our world is becoming more and more globalized. People from all around the world are getting more and more interconnected, are sharing information, goods and ideas. Various cultures come together and somehow learn to coexist. What if, however, the somewhat abstract term of globalization became reality – the driving force behind our entire personal development? What if every word we spoke would testify to our intercultural heritage? Exactly this is the case for bilingual children deriving from the increasing number of cross-cultural marriages. The essay at hand tries to explore the aspect of language in those children’s personal development, as “[a] people without its language is a people without its soul” (Edwards, 1994, p. 129). This Gaelic saying holds the very essence of the understanding that has shaped this essay: language is one of the most important means for developing and conveying culture (Ennaji, 2005, p. 24). It says that without language people would have no deeper understanding of themselves and, hence, no culture.

How does bilingualism consequently affect a child’s cultural identity development? If we consider that culture derives from language and vice versa (Ennaji, 2005, p. 24), looking at cases of conflicting cultures becomes even more intriguing. For precisely this reason, this essay will also go into detail about Japanese-Canadian as well as Palestinian-Jewish bilinguals.

Before analyzing the development of a bilingual child’s cultural identity, however, we have to define cultural identity. In 1980, Brown described the term ‘culture’ as “the content within which we exist, think, feel and relate to each other” – a definition to which Ennaji added the aspect of a dissociation of others (Ennaji, 2005, p. 21). Cultural identity therefore refers to the extent to which each individual person attributes certain views and beliefs to him- or herself, and to the feeling of affinity this person has towards a distinct cultural group of people. Cultural identity is a multilayered construct that does not follow any prescribed pattern or ultimate formula; rather, it is formed through an ongoing and highly individual process of social and personal negotiation (Antal, 1998, p. 164). Each child – and especially multilingual ones – has to go through a complex social process in order to find his or her own cultural identity. This process, however, may take a whole lifetime and never be entirely completed, as according to Rummens (2003) two of the main features of the “identification process” are its flexible nature on the one hand, and its processual nature on the other hand (Noro, 2008, p. 5). This entails that a multilingual child might experience various personal language and culture shifts during his or her lifetime, meaning that the preferred language and culture might be replaced by another one over time (Antal, 1998, p. 150).

Furthermore, the process of cultural identification is “relational” and “contextual” (Noro, 2008, p. 5) as a child can never establish its cultural identity independently from its social environment. The child negotiates its identity not only with him- or herself, but also with immediate reference persons such as parents or friends. This means that if peers do not view the bilingual child as a member of their cultural group, the respective child might not view itself as part of that culture either (Antal, 1998, p. 164).

The last characteristic of the “identification process” mentioned above is its multiplicity (Noro, 2008, p. 5). Cultural identity cannot be regarded as a one-dimensional construct, especially not when multilingualism is involved. The ultimate question ‘Who am I?’ leads everyone – and bilingual children in particular – to a cultural identity that is multifaceted and often mixed (Rummens, 2003). In 2008, Noro gave an example which illustrates precisely this characteristic of cultural identity: “According to [a seven-year-old boy] he is Canadian when he is in Canada, but when he is in Japan, he is Japanese” (Noro, 2008, p. 10). Yet, if we look at this example closely, we might find that the boy’s cultural background is indeed multiple; however, it does not seem to have formed a “smoothly combined” (Ennaji, 2005, p. 23) identity. Rather, the two cultural heritages seem to be set apart from each other whenever the boy is in one of the two corresponding environments.

A conflict of identity like this becomes especially apparent when contradicting or competing cultures are involved (Ennaji, 2005, p. 23). To illustrate this, I would like to elaborate further on the above-mentioned case of Japanese-Canadian identity. Japan’s culture is seen as a collectivist one, meaning there is more “relatedness to others” than in the North-American culture of individualism, in which a “discrete boundary between the self and others” exists (Noguchi, 2007, p. 131). This leads to a specifically interesting question: Which of the conflicting cultures will a bilingual child identify with?

In order to answer this question, we should consider Rummens’ five characteristics of the identification process. Regarding the relational and the contextual aspect, we could imagine the following scenario: A child is brought up in Canada by Japanese speaking parents. Therefore, the child is from birth on exposed to its parents’ Japanese heritage. This prompts the child to acquire Japanese language skills and the corresponding cultural competence. Being raised in an English speaking country however, the child also learns English and become acquainted with the Canadian way of life. Critical for the child’s further development of cultural identity is the time spend in each cultural environment, as well as the parents’ and the community’s attitude towards the other language – English or Japanese respectively. If the parents value their Japanese language and culture highly, then the child might also do so. On the other hand, if the child is bullied in school because of its Asian heritage, it might be inclined to completely conform to the Canadian way of life and to try to suppress its Japanese culture. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the child has to irrevocably lose a part its identity, for cultural identity is – as mentioned above - not static but flexible and multifaceted.


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Bilingualism and Cultural Identity
Which implications does bilingualism have on the cultural identity of children?
Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH
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bilingualism, cultural, identity, which
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Nina Martin (Author), 2011, Bilingualism and Cultural Identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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