Identity is the way in which we see ourselves and how we think others see us. For most people, it evolves and changes throughout their lives. For some, these changes are just small variances. For others, they are life-altering. One could argue that bilinguals go through drastic changes in self-identity as they move through life. The typical roles of society like identifying as a student, professional, parent, or boss can be even more extreme for bilinguals, given the different values and expectations that different cultures associate with these roles. Just as professional translators write in more than one language, bilinguals think, feel, and express their emotions in two different languages.

Cultural Translation: How Being Bilingual Affects Identity

Bilinguals represent roughly 43 percent of the world’s population. It is thought that because language is a main component of identity formation, they may have a harder time navigating the complexities of identity. Every individual has a core identity that is formed by their values, beliefs, family, community, and more. But character is also shaped by language and localization, and our self-identity is based largely on the way we interact with others.

A bilingual individual will internally translate and behave or speak differently depending on the language they are using. They will instinctively present themselves in a different way when they communicate with various groups, much like how a monolingual communicates during a job interview as opposed to a night in with the family. There are differences in word choice, gestures, tone and fluctuation.

Social cues, traditions, symbolism and more come into play when learning another language. Most monolinguals identify with the culture in which they learned to speak. While they may have to hire a translation agency or an interpreter if they need to conduct business in another language, it generally doesn’t occur to them how bilinguals are different. Essentially, many bilinguals are also bicultural and are always experiencing a shift within themselves from one culture to another, even if they aren’t consciously aware of this.

Growing Up Translating Two Languages

Enculturation refers to the process of learning and adopting the values and norms related to a particular culture. These dynamics mold an individual from birth onwards, and are mostly unconscious. If a child is raised in an environment where two languages are spoken, it allows them to translate the two in their minds and make decisions based on which cultural norm will lead to the desired outcome. This usually happens as a result of observing the reactions of parents; is a naturally occurring process.

For various reasons, parents will sometimes attempt to determine a child’s cultural identity for them by pushing them to relate to one culture over another, much like forcing loyalty to a specific brand. Or, if the parents speak very little of the local language, a child may be faced with having to translate for their parents in matters usually reserved for adults. The problem with both of these is that they can be detrimental to the child’s development of his or her own individuality. The emergence of personality in a child living in a bilingual home should be allowed to occur naturally, just as in any healthy home environment.

Sadly, this is not always the case, and may actually be disempowering for the child as they grow. They can become afraid to take initiative, have difficulty with decision-making, or experience distress. As they progress to school, they may be faced with yet another set of expectations. In an attempt to conform, they might even deny or try to hide the parts of their language or culture that make them different. This can lead to experiencing feelings of shame and isolation, which translate into cultural identity issues.

Choosing to Learn or Translate Another Language Later in Life

People who learn a second language in later childhood or as adults have the advantage of being able to consciously choose to immerse themselves in the characteristics and norms of whichever culture works best for them. Perhaps they will identify with a combination of the two, or if they are multilingual, adopt elements of each culture. If the different cultures have political strain or rivalry, it is much easier for an adult to deal with the dissonance than a child. They may experience stress, but can choose not to sacrifice their own sense of self-expression, provided they are living within a culture that is tolerant.

Because of the internet and the ease with which we can travel, multiculturalism is becoming more normal. However, there are still many biases and misconceptions that exist about being bilingual. In the US, it is often seen as more of a political problem than an asset. And the education system often fails bilingual students by encouraging them to use only English and not providing translation services where needed. Instead of appreciating diversity and protecting it as a human right, this only diminishes a student’s cognitive abilities and causes more identity issues. Bilingualism offers opportunities for conflict resolution, problem-solving, and enrichment of society as a whole. Let’s celebrate that.
About the author

Louise Taylor is the head of content for Tomedes, a translation agency that works with clients around the globe to deliver translations in more than 90 languages.