Multiple languages, multiple identities? Bilingualism and identity [Transcript]

May 15, 2023

00:00:15 – 00:01:04
Sharon: Welcome to Kletsheads, the podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. A mother of two bilingual children. In this episode of Kletsheads, we’re talking about identity. What is it and how does it develop in bilingual children? What can you do to encourage your bilingual child to identify positively with their heritage, language background? And more importantly, why should you bother? I also share another Kletsheads Quick and Easy and in Let’s Klets we talk to Denise Amankwah, speech and language adviser of Ghanian heritage, working with multilingual communities in London. Keep listening to find out more.

00:01:04 – 00:03:10
Sharon: I’ve lived in the Netherlands now for over 20 years. I love living here. And whilst there are always things that could be better, I have no plans to return to the UK. I’ve had Dutch nationality alongside my British nationality for a while now, but I don’t think that I would ever really call myself Dutch. On the one hand, I sometimes feel more Dutch than British, but I still think it sounds a bit weird if I were to say that I’m Dutch. I didn’t grow up here, and even though I’m familiar with many of the customs and traditions, I still find myself missing things, whether it’s cultural references, certain nuances in the language, which I do speak very well. It’s just not quite the same as if I’d grown up here. And I sometimes wonder, like many parents, I think, how my children will feel when they’re older. They live in the Netherlands, but our household is really quite British in many ways. We have a Sunday roast on a regular basis. We often have British radio on in the background, and a few weeks before Father Christmas turns up, Sinterklaas has already put in a visit. Yeah, my kids are lucky. Nevertheless, because my children are growing up here. Much of their lives are defined by Dutch culture. I don’t actually know if they feel more British, Dutch or both. I do remember, though, that when my son was a toddler, we were walking past the small library in our neighborhood and he’d never been there before and wondered out loud why, if there was a library around the corner, we always went to the one in the city center. I explained that this was because the library in the city center had books in English. I remember his reaction quite well. He said, Oh, yes, of course, because we’re English, not Dutch. So we only read books in English. Now, on the one hand, I was quite proud that my son identified so strongly with being English, but on the other I thought, Wow, so he really thinks that the language you speak is the same as who you are. And please don’t say this to your Dutch grandmother.

00:03:10 – 00:03:54
Sharon: Identity. It’s a word you often hear when talking about children growing up in a bilingual family. But what does identity really mean? To what extent can you have multiple identities belonging to different cultures or ethnic backgrounds? What are the consequences for children if they identify more in one way than the other? What role do parents, friends, school and wider society have to play? In this episode, we’re answering all these questions with Virginia Lam, researcher at University of Roehampton in London, herself a bilingual speaker of English and Mandarin and mother of two bilingual children. I started by asking Virginia what we mean when we talk about identity.

00:03:54 – 00:04:35
Virginia: Well, it can mean have a lot of things because it can be a self-identity, which is basically from the eyes of a child, you know, seeing yourself as basically separate from anybody else. You are your own being. You’re your own entity. You have your own kind of, you know, existence and beliefs and likes and dislikes, your personality. But I suppose, you know, if we were talking about, you know, languages and of course culture in relation to that, then we are talking about social identity because, you know, identity can be about the qualities and traits and characteristics that basically describe a person or a group.

00:04:36 – 00:04:40
Sharon: Yeah. And when do children develop their identity?

00:04:40 – 00:05:51
Virginia: Good question there, because if it’s just about, you know, me, you know, a child seeing them as kind of their own being separate from anyone else, it can be as young as you know, babies when they realize that, oh, you know, they can kind of, you know, affect things, you know, affect things to happen. They can be, you know, part of the cause and effect. But in terms of, for example, social identity, then the earliest before we even come to talk about things like culture, ethnicity and languages, the first social identity that children from anywhere from research of mine and others that have found is gender identity. I suppose it’s because it’s commonly in kind of circulation in our vocabulary, you know, most languages. And so again, in terms of awareness of groups, they show that in months old or even younger, then in terms of consciously identifying themselves as, you know, being part of these groups, whether that be gender and so on, consciously doing that, we’re talking about starting from about second year of life, at least when they understand, again, the language describing, yeah, these groups.

00:05:51 – 00:05:54
Sharon: And can that change as children get older?

00:05:54 – 00:06:35
Virginia: Absolutely not just in relation to, you know, of course the language and culture and and but in fact, when you say change, it’s not just about children. It’s a lifelong journey. And that’s what, you know, in in the research world, we say it’s a lifespan development. Yeah. Because even as adults, you know, our sense of identity, where we kind of see ourselves as kind of fitting, can change because our circumstances can change. We have not to just say, say, move countries like you have, we can move home and there’s regional identity as well. Do we see ourselves as it’s an unlimited range of, you know, dimensions to see ourselves fitting in?

00:06:35 – 00:07:35
Sharon: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I suppose that’s a good way of thinking about it, right? How how, how you label yourself, how other people label you. Yeah. Let’s zoom in a bit then on on children growing up in bilingual, multilingual, multicultural families. Um, so people who, who have, who have done that have made that journey or are further along on that journey, who grow up in a family with a different cultural or ethnic background from the mainstream. They often get asked that question right, Where are you from? Right? And more often it’s not really a question about where you grew up, but it’s a question about your identity and whether you’re identifying more with your heritage identity or your ethnic identity or however we want to call it, or the mainstream. So are you more British or Iraqi or are you more American or Mexican? You’re more Irish or Polish? Parents, I think, often worry that their children won’t have a clear identity and they might struggle as a result. Are they right to worry?

00:07:36 – 00:09:35
Virginia: Um, in terms of, you know, parents wondering about that in, you know, kind of on behalf of their children, you know, as in where they they wondering they’re expecting they’re kind of conjecturing where their children may ally themselves to to um, it is, I suppose, you know, more often than ever it’s kind of in the subconscious, if not often also in the conscious of a lot of parents, especially those of us who kind of see ourselves as being a minority group. And, and also, you know, societies are also increasingly becoming more diverse as well. And so even the majority group can also ask that question of themselves, where where they position themselves, you know, in the in with this larger society. And I suppose for the, um, experiences, including my own and also from drawing from research of minority children, um, a lot of the expressions like you’ve mentioned, you know, like British, Iraqi, you know, American, Mexican and so forth, you know, they are but part and parcel of how we have kind of, in a way, a part of what said the life journey come to define ourselves. And it’s not static. It’s something that our children experience in terms of changes. It is also nothing unusual nowadays, especially as they get older. How they realize, especially for older children, how they realize other people may see them as well. I can see a clear difference between my older one, for example, who was 13 when he would, you know, describe him himself in various terms. A lot of those is actually with information or the advantage of hindsight of having internalized what he’s aware of his friends calling him. The term Asian is not something that, you know, he himself would actually come up with in vocabulary. But then he acquired that because he realized that’s the term other people see him in.

00:09:35 – 00:09:56
Sharon: So so if somebody calls you oh you’re Asian, then it’s a label that you might start using yourself. I think some parents worry that, oh, you know, will my child choose one or the other? Right? Do you have to choose one or the other if you’re coming from this bicultural background?

00:09:56 – 00:11:39
Virginia: Um, the interesting thing is that in identity, it isn’t something we can really kind of make our children have a feel in a certain way, as in they have their choice. In a way, it’s kind of our way of being. A way of feeling, you know? And therefore it’s not something we can really kind of enforce, but it’s something we can encourage, We can promote. Um, you know, as they may, they may know they’re being identified as something or they may identify as something, but they may not identify very strongly with that. And there is a that distinction of, you know, seeing yourself as a member. But then do you actually feel a strong sense of belonging to it? And what actually comes to, you know, having that sort of, um, uh, you could say a sense of affiliation. Yeah, a sense of belonging with that part, you know, especially for a minority group, it can be about, you know, a group of people that originally came from very far away. Yeah. And so it’s actually, I suppose, what, you know, for parents that are especially for I suppose we’re talking about legacy here in lineage, you know, if we want to perhaps project, you know the future want to see, I suppose, a heritage being reflected by how our children see ourselves. It’s more about, I suppose, exposure. There are ways to socialize them towards, you know, having positive associations, you know, with that group, no matter, you know, how far away that seems. And also, you know, a way of making that culture part of them that they feel they want to identify with. Um, and also the peer group and the greater community. Um, the acceptance from those is also very important.

00:11:39 – 00:11:57
Sharon: This idea of, uh, it’s not only, you know, you could be labeled as Asian, but do you actually feel, do you identify with whatever that label means? Right? So the there are two, we should see those as two different parts of identity. Is that is that right right there.

00:11:57 – 00:12:44
Virginia: So cool. Identify as and identify with define as could be something that you may not agree with but that’s what the sensor says. And you have to slot yourself somewhere and that’s what others see you. But then identifying with usually something that is supposed something more conscious because it’s good to kind of degree to it, you know, it can be from very weakly, not at all to strongly. And I suppose for parents that we have our wishes and we would like to see them as, you know, healthily or strongly identifying with, you know, they say the Heritage Group, but also it’s to their benefit for me as a psychologist anyway, with also seeing themselves as part of the mainstream society because that’s important for, well, adaptation.

00:12:45 – 00:14:45
Sharon: So identity is a complex concept and we see this in the many different ways in which people talk about their own identity. One tool which researchers and psychologists use to tap into people’s identity is the 20 statements test. This test asks you to answer the question, Who am I? in 20 different ways. It’s quite fun to do. So I encourage you to give it a go yourself. The answers people give generally reflect different parts of their identity. So, for example, in answer to this question, I might say, Well, I’m a creative person or I’m stubborn or I’m a hard worker. All of these are true, by the way, and you’ll know that definitely the stubborn one if you know me. And these are all characteristics that have to do with my personality or skills that I have. But I could also answer. I’m British. I’m a researcher. I’m a mother. These are all aspects of my social identity indicating something about the groups that I belong to. As Virginia mentioned, it’s important to distinguish between identifying as or categorizing yourself as being part of a group and identifying with so feeling that you’re actually part of that group, that you belong to a group. I mentioned at the start that I wouldn’t really call myself Dutch, so I wouldn’t really identify as being Dutch. But there are definitely times when I identify with being Dutch or feel quite Dutch. Interestingly, how you identify yourself and the groups you identify with can change depending on the context and as Virginia also mentioned, over time. I asked Virginia whether our goal as parents of bilingual children should be for them to identify with both their heritage, language, background and the mainstream culture in equal measures.

00:14:46 – 00:16:01
Virginia: Children that manage to actually feel a strong and positive level of identification with both the mainstream group as well as with their minority culture, basically tend to be the ones that also have the, you could say, the highest levels of psychological adaptation. They measure highest in the levels of self esteem. So self-worth, you know, seeing themselves as being adaptable, academic adjustments. So not just about, you know, seeing themselves as performing well in school, but, you know, be accepted in the school environment, you know, as fitting in, um, family relationships, having the strongest. They themselves see that and also peer acceptance, so the friends around them as having a cohesive, enduring group of friends that they basically can lean on. And those children that basically see themselves as, you know, feeling a strong sense of alignment, let’s put it that way, or identifying strongly and positively with both mainstream and the minority cultures are also those that tend to report the least mental health problems like depressive symptoms and, you know, anxiety and so forth.

00:16:01 – 00:16:21
Sharon: If you want to know more about the relationship between identity and well-being and about well-being more generally in bilingual children, listen to episode three of the second season of Kletsheads. When we talk about this topic in more detail. We’re going to leave our conversation with Virginia now to talk to our second guest.

00:16:21 – 00:16:23
Sharon: Let’s klets.

00:16:25 – 00:16:32
Denise: Hello. My name is Denise Abankwah. I live in London and I am a speech and language advisor.

00:16:32 – 00:16:35
Sharon: And what does a speech and language advisor do, actually?

00:16:35 – 00:16:59
Denise: Well, the team that I’m on is mostly made up of speech and language therapists, but I’m the only one that’s not a therapist. I’ve been brought on to work on a project called the London EAL Project, so my organization is basically checking if their language interventions are culturally acceptable for families with English as an additional language.

00:17:00 – 00:17:10
Sharon: Yeah, so for people who may be not familiar with the UK, context means English as an additional language, right? So, so all these children are in the process of becoming bilingual.

00:17:10 – 00:17:20
Denise: I hope we are moving towards the term bilingual. I’ve kind of been pushing that in my organization instead of English as an additional language. I think bilingual is more inclusive.

00:17:21 – 00:17:27
Sharon: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s an interesting, interesting point though, isn’t it? You said you’re not a therapist, so what is your own background?

00:17:27 – 00:17:39
Denise: No, I’m mostly working in the early years as a teacher, as a senior, early years practitioner, as a research assistant, but always to do with early years and language.

00:17:39 – 00:17:46
Sharon: And so more from the educational side of things. And how long have you been doing this then? Working as an advisor.

00:17:46 – 00:17:48
Denise: It will be two years in August.

00:17:48 – 00:17:50
Sharon: Two years. And do you enjoy it?

00:17:50 – 00:18:28
Denise: I absolutely love it and I think it’s a very important role. I feel like a bridge between the communities, so I mainly work in areas with high levels of social deprivation. So it’s really important to be a voice for those parents and also for the teachers as well. So lots of the teachers are bilingual themselves and live in these areas too. So we do a lot of focus groups, surveys. So I’m just getting information and really gathering their views, feeding it back to my organization and hopefully make changes so that our services or products are working for a wide range of people. And that’s very important to me.

00:18:28 – 00:18:39
Sharon: Yeah. So I know you’re you were raised bilingually yourself, right? So can you maybe tell us a bit about that, about your own personal bilingual story?

00:18:39 – 00:19:29
Denise: Yeah, it’s very strange. So my I was born in London, born and raised in London. So English is my second language. I would call myself a receptive bilingual because I no longer am able to speak the language. Our language is called Twi in Ghana, West Africa, and it’s a tonal language. So if you don’t get the tones right, you are literally not saying the word. And I really struggle with the tones because I haven’t practiced it since childhood. So I’ve actually really lost the ability. I’m trying now, but it sounds off, so it’s really hard. But I’m trying and yeah, so I just call myself a receptive bilingual. So I completely understand if you speak to me in the language, but it’s extremely hard for me to put a sentence together and get the right tones.

00:19:29 – 00:19:39
Sharon: Yeah. Do you think that’s because you didn’t use the language so, so much or because you were just able to use English? And that was easier because it was the language of the community around you?

00:19:39 – 00:20:21
Denise: Yes. I think it’s because it was English was the dominant language from TV with siblings, friends. And at school. And also because it is a tonal language. I feel like in my experience, if I was to say something with the wrong tone, there was a lot of laughing, not from my immediate family, but from extended family and other bilingual Twi speakers. So it just makes it makes you not want to try. And obviously with less practice, it becomes harder. And just in my experience as an advisor, it’s something I’ve noticed for many of the West African children that I work with, because a lot of West African languages are tonal, so they also just don’t try because they’re embarrassed if they get it wrong.

00:20:21 – 00:20:32
Sharon: And so I know you just said you struggle making the tones, but you know, not everybody will really know what a tonal language is. Can you do you think you could give us an example of what it means?

00:20:32 – 00:21:28
Denise: I’ll try my best. Thank God you are not gonna answer. You won’t know if it’s bad or not. But basically you can have different words with different meanings, with different tones, but they are basically the same word, but their stress or emphasis on a different part of the word. So, for example, um, the word papa, which has two high tones, that means good. And then we have papa, um, that has a high and then a low tone, and that means Father. And then we have Papa. I hope I said that right. So two low tones and that means a fan. So can you imagine thinking of which tone to use for every single word? It’s really hard, for me anyway. Some people do it effortlessly, but it’s really hard for me. And yeah, imagine I’m talking about my dad and then I’m someone the the listener thinks I’m speaking about a fan. It can get quite awkward.

00:21:28 – 00:22:06
Sharon: Yeah. Yeah. And I think, you know, probably for those of us who have no experience with those differences, it’s like, you know, you sometimes really don’t even hear that there is a difference. So going back to your like your professional life and your professional involvement with bilingual children, um, so you said you advise people to make the interventions culturally sensitive. Can you tell us a bit more about some of the issues that you come up against and, you know, some maybe more general tips that people listening can also benefit from?

00:22:06 – 00:24:02
Denise: Sure. I think, um, the tips that I’ve kind of got are more for organizations that work with families. So I noticed that we didn’t really have much on English as an additional language. So we aren’t we didn’t have anything to say about it. And it’s really important to make sure that parents know you should be speaking the languages that you’re most confident in. You don’t If you’re sharing a book at home, you don’t have to be forced to read in English if that’s not a strong language for you. Um, um, language hierarchy shouldn’t exist. So lots of parents said that. So, for example, you know, I’m really interested in kind of African, um, the African context. So for a country like Congo where there are francophone countries, so the French is the official language, but there are other indigenous African languages. The parents might often choose to just speak French and they think that’s fine, but it’s just something to explore. Like, why would you not pass your, um, your first language to your child? And then they will tell you there’s a reason for that. It’s because French is kind of recognized globally. They think it has higher status. And yeah, so in our parent intervention, which is for parents of toddlers, we get to explore that. And I think that’s really important because I don’t know if teachers or organizations know these things or consider these things that some parents might have the wrong information. Unfortunately, some parents are still hearing from other professionals that they should just switch to English to help their child academically. And there’s so much research that shows that they shouldn’t be doing that. I know in 2023, I still hear this. Um, so yeah, just being really explicit and clear in our training slides for teachers and also in the materials that we share with parents that bilingualism is a gift, it’s an advantage. It’s not something to feel embarrassed about. Your child will Thank you for it.

00:24:03 – 00:24:19
Sharon: Yeah. So, so giving that information and also consciousness raising, I suppose, right. Amongst teachers, professionals and amongst the parents. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And what are the biggest challenges that you come across in the work that you do?

00:24:19 – 00:25:27
Denise: If I’m honest, I’m going to be honest, it’s sometimes the way that professionals view the parents. So, um, let’s say for example, with the intervention, that’s for parents, um, having a kind of defeated attitude, saying the parents aren’t going to come, they’re not going to be interested, I can’t be bothered to invite them. They won’t take this up. So already looking at the parents as disengaged. But what we should be thinking is why are our parents that are bilingual not feeling comfortable enough to engage in these things? What are we doing wrong? How can we facilitate greater access for them? Um, whether that’s through bringing in an interpreter, if they feel more comfortable, whether it’s through doing things online so that a family member at home can translate things for them. So that was probably my biggest challenge, like kind of shift, um, reshaping the way that practitioners view their parents, because for the practitioners they think the parents are disengaged, but for the parents they’re probably thinking this isn’t um, kind of suitable for me. And if you could make some changes then I would be engaged. And that’s what happens when we make changes. Parents do get involved. Yeah.

00:25:27 – 00:25:38
Sharon: Yeah. And so you mentioned a couple of changes there. Do you ever, um, like employ the other language, the heritage language as a means of trying to get parents more engaged?

00:25:38 – 00:26:07
Denise: Yes, we’ve been trying to do that more and more often. A lot of the time the parents do have some English language levels. They’re not completely, um, they don’t have no English, basically. Um, and also, sometimes the parents don’t want an interpreter or they don’t want things translated because they want to get better at English. So it’s actually about treating every parent as an individual and not assuming a group is one way and likes one kind of thing.

00:26:07 – 00:26:14
Sharon: And so just to be clear, practitioners for you is like early year teachers and but also speech language therapists as well or.

00:26:15 – 00:26:34
Denise: Not speech and language therapists, because we go into the schools, we do work with speech and language therapy students because we’re evaluating, we’re doing some evaluation. So that’s also really good because they are new and fresh to the profession. They’re still studying close to graduation, so I get to impart all the knowledge I have on them and hopefully influence their practice.

00:26:34 – 00:27:12
Sharon: Yeah, yeah. Kind of raising the new generation. And so obviously your own background is, is a Ghanaian and I know you’ve done some work back when you did a master yourself looking at Africa. I think specifically West African families is there. So I must say it’s something, it’s as context that I know very little about. So what I mean is, are there specific features about or things about that context that is important for people to know about that may be different from other bilingual families?

00:27:12 – 00:28:46
Denise: Yes, I definitely think so. That’s what the kind of main finding from my research was, that because the groups that I looked at were from Anglophone countries, so Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, where English is an official language and the parents have gone to school in an environment where they are always shown speak English, it’s the best language. This is what’s going to help you in life. Your other language is inferior. It’s not as good. That’s the messaging that’s given, whether it’s covertly or overtly. There are lots of physical, psychological punishments sometimes given to children if they or just being humiliated again, if they are not speaking English. And I know that’s in a in an attempt to be part of the global world, but it does create pupils that become parents that have a harmful language ideology. So when these parents come to the UK, they don’t care about passing their language down to their child, even if that’s their stronger language. So that’s something that I thought was, I hope one day I’d do some kind of training on this for teachers. But I think it’s really important for teachers to know because the teachers that I interviewed for my master’s dissertation, they said, Oh, we don’t really see our maybe Ghanaian or Nigerian families as because they speak English to us. And then that creates the teachers are kind of unintentionally encouraging the parents to keep doing what they think is good, what the practitioner thinks is helpful for them. Or does that make sense?

00:28:46 – 00:29:07
Sharon: Yeah. Yeah, that makes total sense. And so do you think because you mentioned earlier on that, you know, you’re trying to push for a change from using the label EAL, English is an additional language, towards bilingual. Do you think that change might also in some way help with the the situation, the issue that you just sketched?

00:29:07 – 00:30:30
Denise: Absolutely. I would actually love, my dream is if we didn’t have that huge category and we were really specific. So teachers were confidently able to label children as a receptive bilingual or knowing that this child is from an ex colony, an ex British colony. So they’re aware that English is a language that the child will hear at home. But there is another language there, an indigenous language too, or this child is from a francophone country, the African, but they’re from a francophone country. So I know that French may be spoken at home, but there’s probably another language there as well, so they might be trilingual. I would love if teachers were equipped with that level of knowledge about their children, especially in the early years. It’s such a key point, and that’s why I focused on the early years as well, because I was really interested in hearing about the messaging that newly arrived parents are getting from their first contact with the British education system. That was really important to me. And what I found was that generally the teachers and nursery teachers, nursery managers, had very positive views about multilingualism in general, but there were certain types of multilingualism that were celebrated and it was never black African languages. Um, yeah. Which probably links to the fact that the practitioners thought the children just speak English all the time or they just hear English all the time.

00:30:30 – 00:31:06
Sharon: Yeah, yeah. And so I suppose there are two things there. One is that, you know, as a, as a teacher having the knowledge about, you know, there there’s no, no language is worse than the other. You know, we all have biases about what we think about languages, you know, the consciousness raising, the knowledge that we talked about before, but also information gathering from the parents. Right. Really knowing what the situation is at home, which languages are spoken, not just, you know, testing your assumptions. And so I think, you know, there’s scope there, too, for improvement, right?

00:31:07 – 00:31:14
Denise: Absolutely. I know that we do something called home visits in the early years here. I’m not sure if you do that.

00:31:14 – 00:31:40
Sharon: So I only know from personal experience that, um, my daughter’s teacher came in the first year she came round for lunch one day, she would go for lunch with every, come home with a child at lunch time. But it’s not a standard thing. And actually my son is three years younger, that didn’t happen with him. So but, you know, that’s just my personal experience as a mother. But I don’t think it’s part of, uh, part of the system.

00:31:40 – 00:31:59
Denise: Okay, well, lunch is a great idea. I think that’s something that we should implement. But during our home visits, there’s like one question and it just says, What’s your home language? Or what’s the child’s first language? Something like that. There’s no further exploration. So maybe if we could amend our forms that might prompt teachers to find out more.

00:31:59 – 00:32:38
Sharon: Yeah, well. Actually, this is a good chance to plug in the Q-bex project, which is a project that I’m involved in with colleagues in Leeds and reading and in tours in France, where we have developed a tool that you can use and it’s available in multiple languages. I can tell you about it later, maybe after this, but I can put the link in the in the show notes for anybody who’s interested. I think we’re going to wrap up soon. Before we do, I would just like to know from you, you know, what do you think the future looks like for bilingual children, especially the children of West African heritage in the UK? What’s the future look like for them? And maybe if you could change something, what would it be?

00:32:38 – 00:33:19
Denise: Yes. I’m hoping that there’s a kind of revitalization of their languages, so I’m hoping that they’ll be less receptive bilinguals and children from West African backgrounds are really proud to speak their languages. I’m already kind of seeing a shift in just the West African children being proud of their heritage because of music. It’s kind of taking more of a dominant stance in the UK, which is great. So I’m hoping that teachers’ level of education regarding EAL children (I hate that term) will improve and that there’ll be more support for all types of children. That would be great. That is my dream. Yeah.

00:33:19 – 00:33:38
Sharon: Good. I think that’s a good place to end. That’s what we’re going to that’s what we’re going to hope for. And hopefully it won’t be too long before your dream comes true. Yeah. Yeah. Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us today, Denise. It’s been it’s been lovely to find out more about what you’re working on and about the context that you’re working in.

00:33:38 – 00:33:41
Denise: Oh, no worries. Thanks, Sharon. Thanks for having me.

00:33:41 – 00:33:43
Sharon: Let’s klets.

00:33:45 – 00:34:13
Sharon: So there are lots of differences then that you said in terms of how children identify with certain cultures. And and these can have very significant consequences or effects in terms of the general well-being. But if we take a step back a minute, think about, you know, what causes those differences, how come some children do identify more with their heritage background than others?

00:34:14 – 00:36:03
Virginia: There came a lot of reasons. And I guess, you know, I’ve kind of briefly talked about, you know, one way in which, you know, especially for younger children is the input from the family because you are the first port of call, first contact. And so, as I said also that it’s not something you can really enforce, that it’s something you can kind of encourage them towards. Um, and, and I suppose it is about exposure and it is in terms of quantity and quality. So the more they basically receive about it. And the more especially for what they receive, it’s into something that is worth having. That is not like an obligation or expectation because children are very sensitive to that. As you know, you have to give me a good reason for that. There are plenty of other things they can, you know, spend time with rather than exploring, you know, learning another language that especially in the greater society, may not particularly value. And so it has to be something that perhaps would be made fun, you know, into something that they think is worthwhile, that it’s fun to learn, especially given that it’s a language through which you can access a whole new world, that basically it’s something to me, as I said, you know, to a lot of people that have asked us, is it okay, my kid is not very, you know, kind of fluent in their mother tongue or heritage language. Well, in actuality, strictly speaking, if they’re functional, very well adjusted in a mainstream language is not a must, but it is a gift and in my view, is a gift that keeps giving. Even as an adult. There are new things I find out, especially, you know, for someone that has, you know, emigrated for a long time, for nearly 40 years to my host country, it’s still something that I keep finding out more.

00:36:04 – 00:36:28
Sharon: I’m just thinking now, you know, if if there are parents listening who think, well, you know, my kid doesn’t speak my language quite so well, but I would, you know, does that mean then that they’re not going to identify with my background, my cultural heritage? Is that, you know, something that they should worry worry about? What I mean is, language is obviously really helpful. But is it essential.

00:36:28 – 00:38:37
Virginia: If there is a heritage language involved with the culture, it does give you more ready access to a lot of complicated concepts within it. And by understanding these better, it does therefore help give you more of an opportunity for deeper understanding. You know, maybe it’s something that it’s also portrayed, maybe even in kind of common media movies and so on. I don’t know whether you’ve seen kind of the Big Fat Greek Wedding and, you know, the sort of movies whereby you have kind of multigenerational families kind of all under one roof and you’ve got parents and even grandparents that have acquired the host country’s language and culture, they’re perfectly functional with it. They’ve got jobs in it, and then boom, something happens like someone touches a nerve or something. You know, the matriarch or patriarch is, you know, is angry. And then they slip into that heritage language. They can speak English, no problem. You know, it gets closer to the heart. And that’s why when when I kind of look at research and especially research like myself haven’t done, they have found that in families, including parents that are very fluent in the host language culture, if the children have a good maintenance of the heritage language, it basically bodes well for the relationships. And that’s because when we’re talking relationships, we talk about feelings, emotions, emotive subjects, sex education, what have you. And some of these things the parents would hark back to their childhood where these are kind of were encoded in their heritage language. For them, it’s close to the heart. It’s easy for them to access that part and be talking very easily and closely. Yeah. About those topics, even though, yes, they can speak English well, they can speak the host language well, but with things that really matter within the family functioning. And you know, and that’s why, you know, we do kind of promote that when say it’s not a must, but it is really, really useful.

00:38:37 – 00:38:54
Sharon: Yeah. Yeah. So you mentioned just now, you know, multigenerational the idea of the wider family. What what is the role of those other family members in forming a child’s multicultural identity?

00:38:55 – 00:41:07
Virginia: Um, I think having them there because obviously it starts from good relations as well. If the relations are already warm, then children are kind of already, you know, more engaged and they have a greater incentive because they already like their cousins and so forth, they want to be with them. And then so that’s step one. You know, having the having access to them is already quite a privilege for some of us. And secondly is of course, fostering the use of the language, especially, you know, parents themselves and even grandparents. They they understand the pressure of fitting in. But, you know, when you have the space for it, it’s not about enforcing it. It’s just even if your child. A lot of parents have also asked me when I’m doing public engagement is, yeah, I speak, I speak to them in my language, but they always reply. Back in English, you know, in the host language as well. Don’t worry about it. You can keep speaking to them in your language. And actually, myself have a lot of, you know, videos of my son and my daughter as young as, you know, age two, three and four. I was speaking to them in my language and they were already replying back in English. And it was kind of to and from, to and from. But the good thing is that means they understood perfectly what was being said to them. It’s just that they had a preference. But then surrounding them with the environment just encouraged them to also articulate it in the extra exposure in terms of that dimension of these so-called complimentary language settings. And that’s because they’re kind of in a way normalizes the heritage language to them, that it’s not just like your family language. There’s a whole world out there. There’s a whole community beyond your family that that finds this a normal thing to do, to speak in that language that you don’t have to shy away from because a lot of children, especially due to, you know, majority pressure, they are very hesitant. And I don’t blame them. I experienced that myself many years ago. The hesitancy or refusal to speak that in public, but that, you know, that would, you know, encourage to foster safe spaces for them to exercise the heritage language and therefore learn about the heritage culture. Yeah.

00:41:08 – 00:41:34
Sharon: Yeah. And does it matter then, if you’re growing up like, say, within a particular cultural community? What I mean is, you know, that there’s a bunch of people, other families around you in the neighborhood or not very far away that you can have that sense of and other people sharing the same identity as you. Do we know whether that impacts on children’s identity development?

00:41:34 – 00:42:54
Virginia: The connectedness helps a lot and graphical proximity because in a way that’s another method of, you know, normalizing it, that it’s not just in that very much a microcosm of just your family unit. Because my son, he was the first one and he used to call my language mummy language. Mandarin is the one that I speak to him in. And he used to call that the mummy language. And that’s because he thought I was the only one that would speak that with him until, you know, he saw more of other children. And that’s why I say the normalizing impact of showing him that there’s, well he is now of course visited the motherland, I suppose could call it that, that he realized, oh of course there’s a billion people that that share this language. And so you know because for them, you know, nationhood and, you know, ethnicity and all that, they are very, very abstract things. And it’s not until much later they really have a grasp of that. And even for a lot of adults, those are really, really complex concepts and they don’t always marry well with other things that they also take as dear to them. But then by normalizing it to to kind of have a peer group, even if it’s something that you see just once a week or even once a month.

00:42:54 – 00:43:10
Sharon: We’re going to leave our chat with Virginia again now to listen to another let’s heads quick and easy, a concrete tip you can put into practice straight away to make the most out of the bilingualism in your family, class or clinic.

00:43:10 – 00:45:38
Sharon: Today’s Quick and Easy comes from the Peach Projects Handbook for parents. This is a digital handbook written in several languages which is packed full with concrete tips on bilingual parenting. The tip I want to share with you today is about sharing your own culture. Culture and language are, of course, closely connected. And as a parent of a bilingual child, you likely feel it’s important to not only pass on your language, but also to pass on parts of your own culture. Amongst other things, This can help your child feel connected to who you are and where you come from. And it also helps them learn new phrases and words in the heritage language. So find something from your own culture, perhaps from your own childhood that you would like to share with your child. This could be a game, a song or a rhyme, a book or a film. Something to eat or drink. To give an example, I love baking. And so at our house we often eat afternoon tea at the weekends, nothing super fancy with a plate stand and ten different types of cake, but just some scones and a cup of tea for the adults and a glass of Vimto for the kids. Now only listeners from the north of England will recognise Vimto as a British brand of cordial. But that’s exactly the point. These were things that I enjoyed as a child and parts of my culture that I want to share with my children. And yes, you do pronounce scone as scone, not scone. As a teacher, you can ask the bilingual children in your class to bring something from the other culture into school, perhaps something related to a topic that you’re working on. Or you can learn songs or dances from other cultures together with all the children. Ask older pupils to do some research into this. Where does the dance come from? What’s the history of the song? You can also ask willing parents to come and tell something about their own culture at school. That way you show them that you also value this part of their child. Teachers and schools who’ve tried this out have told me that it can also have a positive knock on effect on parental involvement at school more generally. So the Kletsheads, quick and easy then for today is to find something from your own culture or from your child’s other culture to share or to do.

00:45:44 – 00:46:20
Sharon: So you’ve mentioned a few things already that parents can do if they want their children to identify with their own cultural background, right? You mentioned the complementary schools. Heritage, language schools, and giving them exposure enough exposure to the language so that they develop a, you know, um, uh, fostering good relationships insofar as you can with a wider family. Do you have any other tips for parents in terms of what they can do to promote their child’s, uh, multiple identities?

00:46:21 – 00:48:06
Virginia: Um, well, if it’s through languages, you know, I wouldn’t advertise it here. But, you know, only typically, you know, this week matter is a standard second secondary school teacher, a French and Spanish. And he himself is actually half Japanese person. And he built this block of multilingual literacy library. And there he devised a lot of games that he had basically tried with his class pupils and he tried with his own children and found that, okay, his children were hesitant. But then this helped somewhat. And of course it was in a block and now the parents have tried it out using their own heritage language and they said it does help a little bit. And also, you know, they devise kind of related games. And so there are actually a lot of resources out there. You yourself may actually have have some up your sleeve that you can make that if not the language, but with the culture kind of more fun to learn, um, to basically get these kind of tips so that it doesn’t become like it’s an obligation, it’s an expectation because you are this, so you have to learn it. With my older one, he, you know, he’s in the gaming stage and I guess in his school that is more multicultural now and he’s realizing that it’s all right. And in fact, you know, he’s kind of not shying away from anymore, which he used to. He’s very happy to do kind of spontaneous kind of translations among his friends, because his friends are very happy to say doing that in Polish or in in German and all that. And so he realizes that, oh, of course there are plenty others like me, even though they’re not exactly like him. But basically being multilingual is in a way, you could say not even that special anymore.

00:48:07 – 00:48:29
Sharon: Yeah, Yeah. And of course, that’s another almost, you know, another identity that children will have, right? That they are a multilingual child. Just just more generally. Finally, then, what about, you know, teachers, right? What could what can teachers pay attention to when it comes to how their bilingual students develop their own identity?

00:48:29 – 00:50:48
Virginia: So in a sense, it’s impracticable to basically, you know, learn all their languages or even to learn all the hellos. But at least, you know, in terms of, you know, classroom cohesion and also having children to feel a sense of having a bit of themselves in the school, That’s a part of them being kind of feeling kind of feeling included is at least show curiosity and acknowledgment that they’re there. And sometimes it could just be a matter of, you know, how do you say this in, you know, in does anyone know this in another language? And I could kind of tell you something. From what I’ve observed at this term, I’ve been doing some kind of observations in a actually an adult learning center of English as a foreign language. And in a way, the old classroom style of, you know, keeping everything in English is very old school. The new school style is, you know, especially being inclusive is whenever there’s a new term to actually, you know, to to reinforce the uptake is to actually ask around the group, since the group is very, very diverse. How do you say this in your language? And yesterday they had a they had a Japan Day. They had a previous student actually revisiting the school. The whole day was geared towards learning about Japan. But then in the morning they they had a class group doing cooking. So a lot of prep was done beforehand and the recipe was being discussed back and forth. So there’s a lot of action words when you’re doing cooking. And so they discussed that and they were discussing, okay, what’s the difference between dissolve and melt? And some of those things, you know, as they would say, daily English speakers, I haven’t really thought about how to define or distinguish. And in the afternoon, again, it was all very focused on still learning English. But through the the the topic of what’s there in Japan, how do you say this? And action such as, you know, cooking rice in the morning is very, very boring cooking rice. But then because the group is diverse, the teacher asked the group while the rice was cooking. So how do you cook rice in your country? Because they had to articulate, you know, how it was done. And we realized, of course, a lot of cross-cultural learning. The ladies from Lebanon cooked rice very differently.

00:50:48 – 00:51:30
Sharon: Yeah, and I suppose if you. So just getting back to identity, then I suppose then if you’re doing that, for example, in a school will, you know, reinforce that the, the place, the space that that identity is allowed to take up and the positivity that children might experience or associate with it more if it’s really something that’s mentioned and discussed, encouraged within the school context as well as at home. So great. Well, thank you, Virginia, for sharing all your insights with us about multilingual children’s identity. It was been it’s been great talking to you.

00:51:30 – 00:51:34
Virginia: And it’s been great for me to talk to you as well. Thanks very much for inviting me.

00:51:35 – 00:53:55
Sharon: So I hope this episode has given you a better idea of the many different ways in which we can understand identity, how identity develops in children, and how, as a parent or professional, you can best encourage bilingual children to identify positively with their heritage language background. This is definitely something we’re thinking about and investing your time and energy in as a parent, because research shows that children who do identify with both their heritage language culture and the mainstream culture will grow up into healthier and happier individuals, and that family life will benefit as a consequence, too. Towards the end of our conversation, Virginia mentioned a resource called the Library for Multilinguals. This was developed by Yoshito Dharman Shimamura and the link is in the show notes. That’s the description of the podcast that you’ll find in your podcast app or on our website. Yoshito has got some great ideas to encourage children to read and write in their heritage language, so be sure to check out these on his website. We’ll be back in a month’s time with an episode on bilingualism and aging where we answer the questions Can you lose a language as you get older if you use it less as a child or parent? And can bilingualism act as a kind of therapy, helping you stave off illnesses such as dementia as you get older? If you want to make sure you find out the answers to those questions and you don’t miss that episode, then subscribe to Kletsheads in your podcast app. Until then. If you want to know more about Kletsheads go to our website at That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favorite podcast app. If you know someone else who might enjoy the podcast, then I’d really appreciate it if you would share it with them. You can do this via the website or in your podcast app, and if you’re on social media, we’d love it if you followed us. Our handle is @kletsheads. Thanks for listening and until the next time. Or as we say in Dutch, tot de volgende keer.

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