Life as a Bilingual

The reality of living with two (or more) languages

Who Am I?

The identity quest of bicultural bilinguals

Many bilinguals are also bicultural (see here) and are characterized by at least three traits. First, they take part, to varying degrees, in the life of two or more cultures. Second, they adapt, at least in part, their attitudes, behaviors, values, etc, to these cultures. And third, they combine and blend aspects of the cultures involved. (Note that in what follows we will limit our discussion to two major cultures but what is said also applies to people who belong to three or more cultures).

In addition to navigating within and between their cultures, biculturals have to come to terms with their own identity. To be able to reach the point of saying, "I am bicultural, a member of both culture A and culture B", biculturals may have to go through a long and challenging process.

First, biculturals have to take into account how they are perceived by members of each of their cultures. The latter base themselves on such factors as kinship, language, physical appearance, nationality, education, attitudes, and so on. The outcome may be similar (X is judged to be a member of culture A by all concerned) or contradictory (X is seen as belonging to culture A by members of culture B and vice versa). Rarely do biculturals receive the message that they are both A and B.

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Faced with this double categorization, biculturals have to reach a decision as to their own cultural identity. They take into account how they are perceived and they bring in other factors such as their personal history, their identity needs, their knowledge of the languages and cultures involved, the country they live in, and so on. The possible outcomes are to identify solely with culture A, solely with culture B, with neither culture A nor culture B, or with both culture A and culture B.

Although sometimes necessary, the first three solutions may not be satisfactory in the long run as they do not reflect the fact that biculturals have roots in two or more cultures. They may regret at some point having turned away from one of their cultures or, if they have rejected both cultures, they may feel ambivalent about who they are.

Paul Preston interviewed a number of hearing adults whose parents are Deaf and who grew up in the hearing and in the Deaf worlds. Many expressed the feeling that they did not belong to either world. Here is how one of them expressed this: "I always felt like I didn't belong either place. I didn't belong with the Deaf 100 per cent and I didn't belong with the hearing. I didn't feel comfortable with (the) hearing. I felt more comfortable with (the) Deaf but I knew I wasn't deaf."

The fourth outcome, identifying with both cultures A and B, is the optimal solution since bicultural people live their lives in two or more cultures even if one culture is dominant. Those who have the chance of belonging to established bicultural groups such as Mexican Americans, Italian Americans, and so on, find support among their members. The writer Veronica Chambers relates how she progressively discovered her dual identity group in Panama among the Afro-Antillianos: "I was thrilled to learn there was actually a society for people like me".

For isolated biculturals, the process of identifying with both cultures and admitting that one is indeed bicultural may take time. The Franco-British journalist and writer, Olivier Todd, spent most of his life searching for his dual identity after philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre told him that his problem was that he was divided between England and France. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years ago and I asked him about his biculturalism. I stressed the fact that one could be both A and B even if one culture is dominant. After a long silence he admitted that I was right and that he was indeed bicultural, although he was reluctant to adopt the word "bicultural".

Bicultural people are invaluable in today's world since they are bridges between the cultures they belong to. They act as intermediaries between the two and they can explain one culture to members of the other. As Phil, one of Paul Preston's interviewees said, "We can see both sides because we're on both sides".


References

Preston, P. (1995). Mother Father Deaf. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press.

LaFromboise, T., Coleman, H. and Gerton, J. (1993). Psychological impact of biculturalism: Evidence and theory. Psychological Bulletin 114, 395-412.

 

"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area: http://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/blog_en.html

François Grosjean's website: www.francoisgrosjean.ch

François Grosjean, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland and the author of Bilingual: Life and Reality, among other books.

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