In this chapter, I examined the relationship between bilingualism and identity. I began with the premise that language is intimately connected to one’s identity, and that to understand the educational and social aspects of bilingualism one must carefully consider issues of identity. From the examples involving Mandarin in Singapore and English in Malaysia, we saw that language attitude and ethnic identity have a significant influence on people’s language behaviors in multilingual societies. Bilingual language choice and preference change according to people’s conceptions of who they are and how they wish to be perceived by other people. For English-speaking Malays in Malaysia, this often means hiding their knowledge of English in the presence of other Malays. For language minority children and adolescents, this often involves identifying with the socially dominant language.
I discussed Tse’s four-stage model of ethnic identity development which predicts ethnic minorities’ shifting attitudes toward the heritage and majority languages as they come to terms with their minority status. Although this model by no means accounts for the identity development of all ethnic minorities (and is rather essentialist in its orderly sequential conception of identity development), it is useful in predicting that heritage language education is most likely to succeed when ethnic minorities are not in Stage 2 (Ethnic ambivalence/evasion). I discussed the research which suggests a strong link between greater heritage language proficiency and better self-esteem among ethnic minority youth. I also explained that we must be careful about generalizing results to different populations given that the relationship between identity and language is complicated by interactions with a range of other factors such as language status, social class, geographic location, and generational differences.
I discussed the role of essentialist frameworks such as Social Network Analysis (Milroy, 1987) in predicting the language use patterns of bilingual speakers. These theories try to link bilinguals’ language behavior with predetermined categories such as the degree of ethnic social ties. I showed that essentialist models, though insightful in their own right, do not adequately explain the negotiated, constructed, and conflicted nature of identity. What is increasingly preferred are the more interpretive, constructivist accounts which conceptualize identity as fluid and dynamic. People’s constructions of gender, age, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and socioeconomic status provide them with multiple identities, which complement and conflict with one another. People do not establish these identities by themselves but negotiate them through social interaction with others. The process of constantly positioning and re-positioning oneself relative to others evades easy categorizations.
We saw that this view of identity is increasingly adopted by educators who are committed to improving the education of linguistically and culturally diverse students. Because societal and school structures tend to privilege the views of the dominant groups at the expense of the minority groups, educating cultural minority students requires nurturing students’ intellect and identity in ways that challenge societal power structures (Cummins, 2000; Nieto, 2002). As Cummins (2000) argues, empowerment derives from the process of negotiating identities in the classroom, and educators who affirm culturally diverse students’ religion, culture, and language as valid forms of self-expression and identities are more likely to be effective than those who do not. Affirming diversity requires not merely tolerating the presence of different languages or cultures, but actively acknowledging, promoting, and celebrating individual identities as they are continuously created, re-created, and negotiated.