Bilingualism, biculturalism, and identity: a literature review


Race and ethnicity are important factors which contribute to one’s identity and sense of self. For young children and adolescents who are in the process of developing a sense of self and forging an identity, learning about and coming to terms with their ethnicity and cultural background are an essential part of that process. This can be particularly challenging for bicultural children, or children who are raised in a different culture than their parents’. Research has shown that adolescents with a bicultural identity can benefit from being able to come to terms with and adopt different elements and aspects from their cultural heritage. They can show better interpersonal skills, and have higher self-esteem than those who make the choice of embracing one culture in favour of the other.

Language is one of the more significant ways through which culture is expressed. The use of a language helps contribute to developing a sense of attachment and connection to a particular culture. So by speaking a second language, bicultural individuals take a step towards identifying with the different aspects of their culture. In addition to being an identifier of culture, language has also been found to affect personality. Previous research has shown that bilinguals exhibited differences in their behaviours depending on the languages in which they were expressing themselves. The mechanisms responsible for this effect were investigated by Chen and Bond in a two part study on bilingual university students in Hong Kong (Chen and Bond, 2011). The first part of the study sought to understand the perceptions that bilingual Hong Kong students had of native English speakers and native Chinese speakers. The participants were all compound bilinguals, meaning that they acquired both of their languages in the same cultural context. They were instructed to complete sets of questionnaires, available in both English and Chinese, to measure perception of self, of typical native Chinese speakers, and of native English speakers. Language ability, usage, and media exposure was also measured. The results found that native English Speakers were perceived to be higher on extraversion, agreeableness, and openness to new experience. Native Chinese speakers were perceived to be higher on neuroticism and conscientiousness. No significant difference in proficiency was detected among the participants who completed the questionnaires in English or Chinese.

The second part of the study assessed self-perceptions of personality as well as the way personality was perceived by others using behavioural observation. Fluent bilingual participants were recruited to complete the measures being investigated in English, while the other half completed them in Chinese. The participants were later invited to be interviewed. They were interviewed by a Caucasian and a Chinese interviewer separately, and the interviews were conducted in English and Cantonese. To control for gender effects, all the selected participants were male while all the interviewers were female. After the interviews the participants were given a small questionnaire to assess the extent to which they felt their personality and behaviour changed as they changed languages. The participants perceived themselves to be somewhere in between native English and native Chinese speakers on both ratings. They perceived native English speakers as more agreeable than native Chinese speakers and also saw themselves to be more agreeable than native Chinese speakers but not as much as native English speakers. When they were speaking with the Chinese interviewers, the participants were seen as more extroverted and assertive when speaking English than when speaking Chinese. When they were speaking with Caucasian interviewers the participants were seen as more extroverted and assertive than when speaking with Chinese interviewers. Based on those findings, the researchers observed that when the participants interacted with native English speakers in English they tended to adopt what they perceived to be culturally appropriate behaviour. The researchers surmised that this might be done to better assimilate to the culture and connect as much as possible with the interlocutor.

Chen and Bond’s study suggests that the effects of language on behaviour are related to culture. Bilinguals show changes in their personality depending on the language they are using in order to adopt culturally appropriate traits. Their observations are indicators of the strong connection between the expression of cultural identity and language. This connection has been further investigated by researchers of the University of Sydney, in a study looking at how students from different cultural and language backgrounds who attended a bilingual French/English school in New South Wales, Australia, developed a bilingual and bicultural identity (Fielding and Harbon, 2013). Due to the differing background of the students, there were some participating in the language immersion program to learn French or English as a foreign language, while others were in it to preserve and reinforce a language they already spoke. Students completed questionnaires and participated in interviews conducted in English. The researchers found that the students made a distinction between bicultural identity and their bilingual identity. They explained their bicultural identity as the extent to which they felt they belonged to a culture, while they tended to associate bilingualism with their level of proficiency. Based on the results obtained from the questionnaires and the interviews, the researchers observed that some students’ perception of bilingualism was closely related to the idea of equal proficiency and frequent interactions in both languages. As a result students were more hesitant to label themselves as bilingual even though they all indicated that they viewed themselves as bicultural regardless of their perceived proficiency. The results gave some insight into the way cultural identity and bilingual identity is constructed in children. This further reinforces the point that language plays an important role in the feeling belongingness to a culture. It also shows that bilingual individuals hold themselves to a high standard when it comes to considering themselves bilingual.

 A study on communication and identity conducted in Western Canada sought to further investigate the relationship between language and identity in a cross-cultural setting (Gaudet and Clément, 2008). More particularly, the study investigated how language and identity were influenced by social context, notably by looking at social support and inter-group relations among French-speaking residents of the Saskatchewan province. The researchers hypothesised that Francophones of French descent would have greater Francophone communication networks than those of English descent, and the converse would also be true with Francophones of English descent would have greater Anglophone communication networks. They also hypothesised that the French Francophones would have greater exposure to French media, would have greater Francophone social support, be more confident in their French abilities, and have a stronger Francophone identity than the English Francophones.

The participants consisted of 218 students from a French background who were recruited from seven Francophone schools in the Saskatchewan province. They were given which contained items assessing demographic information, ethnic identity, their psychological adjustment, language confidence, social support, communication networks, Anglophone contact, francophone involvement, and exposure to English media. Given that the participants lived in a context where English was the dominant and default language, the results obtained suggest that their efforts to maintain Francophone networks and their ties with the French language were found to be the significant contributors in the development of their identity. They found that language was a significant difference maker in the network formation between Fancophones and Anglophones. Francophones tended to form networks which were more based on common language than Anglophones. This further underlines the important role that language in the sense of identity and belonging to a cultural group. The results also suggest that the home environment plays an important role in the formation of communication, as it is the primary influence that will determine the types of networks formed outside of the home.

The investigation of the interaction between the home environment and cultural identity brings to the attention the phenomenon of language brokering. Language brokering refers to the role of language and cultural interpreting and translating that adolescents from immigrant families sometimes have to perform between their families and the outside environment. So far, investigations on the effects of language brokering on psychological health and parent-child relationships have yielded inconclusive results. Some have indicated that language brokering could result in higher self-esteem, feelings of independence and maturity, while others have reported that it can result in stress, burden, and anxiety. The great variation in the results obtained has prompted researchers to move away from a focus on individuals and to rather investigate the effects of language brokering while paying more attention to the context. A study conducted with Chinese immigrant families in Western Canada sought to pay more attention to the context of language brokering by looking at how it was affected by the language brokers’ views on family obligations and their perception of the psychological control their parents had on the brokering relationships (Hua and Costigan, 2012).

In their study, Hua and Costigan hypothesised that for adolescents with a greater sense of family obligation language brokering would be associated with positive psychological health and parent-child relationship quality. They also expected the converse to be true, so that for adolescents with a more reduced sense of family obligation language brokering would be associated with more negative psychological health and parent-child relationship. Additionally, they expected language brokering to be associated with poorer psychological health in adolescents who perceived higher levels of parental control, while with adolescents who perceived less parental control language brokering would be associated with positive psychological health.

Participating in this study were 182 adolescents of immigrant Chinese families. Approximately half of them moved to Canada at age six or later, while the other half was born or moved there earlier. The investigators gathered demographic information, language brokering frequency and attitudes towards family obligations. Perceived parental psychological control, self-esteem, and anxiety were also. And finally they looked at understanding and satisfaction within the parent-child relationships, intergenerational congruence, and parent-child conflicts.

The findings indicated that higher frequency of language brokering was associated poorer psychological health with adolescents who had stronger family obligation values or who perceived their parents to be more psychologically controlling. It was also found that higher frequency of language brokering was strongly associated with greater frequency of conflict between parent and child. However there was no significant association between the frequency of language brokering and self-esteem or parent-child congruence. The association of language brokering with negative psychological health in adolescents with a greater sense of family obligation was contrary to what the researchers expected. This suggests that adolescents with a greater sense of family values might take their role as language brokers more seriously and thus experience greater anxiety when performing that role, particularly when done at a greater frequency.

In a study on Mexican American adolescents, Love and Buriel (2007) investigated the relationship between the duties of language brokers, their perceived autonomy, parent-child bonding, biculturalism, and self-reported depression. The researchers hypothesised that greater frequency of language brokering would be related to higher levels of depression and that girls would report higher levels of depression due to greater language brokering frequency. It was also expected that biculturalism, parent-child bonding, and increased autonomy would be moderating factors in the relationship between depression and language-brokering frequency, thus adolescents who reported to feel greater psychological autonomy would have lower levels of depression.

The participants in this study were 246 seventh and eighth-grade students of Mexican American heritage who went to two predominantly Latino middle schools in Los Angeles County, California. All the participants were from immigrant households and were active language brokers. Demographic information was obtained from the participants and the measures were administered during class time. The factors assessed included of depression, language brokering, autonomy, biculturalism, and finally parent-child bonding.

The findings of the study showed that strong parent-child bond was correlated with positive feelings about language brokering and lower levels of depression in boys, the same observation was not made with girls. The researchers surmised that for girls, language brokering could be an expression of gender roles, or part of household tasks, and thus may not be a significant source of stress. However, no significant differences in gender roles and language brokering activities were found. Boys and girls in this study did not report differences in the amount of responsibility or psychological autonomy they had, but boys reported having more privileges. It was also found that girls who reported brokering activities in more places and reported more responsibility had lower levels of depression. Biculturalism was related to less depression for boys, but for girls it was unrelated. It is thought that this observation may be due to a disconnect between language brokering responsibilities and gender roles in boys. So biculturalism might serve as a buffer against depression by helping compensate for that disconnect, while for girls it is unrelated due to the fact that their language brokering responsibilities don’t go against their gender role expectations. Additionally, the findings also showed that girls reported more depression than boys and more positive feelings toward language brokering. There were no differences in parent-child bonding between genders, greater parent-child bonding resulted in less depression for boys, and positive feelings were correlated with stronger parent-child bonding for both genders.

The fact that language brokering in more places was correlated with lower levels of depression in girls suggests that there is a relation between the psychological effects of language brokering and the context in which it takes place. Martinez and colleagues (2009) investigated this relationship by looking at whether family environments differed in families that had high brokering demands versus those that had low ones; if the adolescents in those families differed in terms of substance use, academic performance, emotional and behavioural adjustment; and lastly if the parents differed in terms of parenting behaviour and adjustment.

The participants in the study consisted of 73 families from the Oregon metropolitan area. All the participating parents but one father were born outside of the United States. The assessments were conducted through self-report questionnaires, interviews with the families, as well as family observations. Language brokering context was determined through questionnaires and two contexts were defined. The high demand contexts consisted families bilingual children and monolingual parents, the low demand context consisted of families with bilingual children and at least one bilingual parent. For the parents, the researchers looked at the frequency of stress within the families, parent depression, the quality of the relationship within the couple, and the amount of involvement in parenting. For the adolescents they looked at academic performance as perceived by the parents, socioemotional adjustment, depression, confidence, feelings about ethnicity, and likelihood of substance use.

The findings indicated that there was little positive relationship between high demand contexts and healthy adjustment among parents and adolescents. The adolescents in high demand contexts showed more negative adjustments, poorer school performances, more internalising behaviour and a greater likelihood for future substance use. The findings also showed that fathers in high demanding language brokering areas showed higher levels of depression and lower positive involvement with their adolescents. The researchers suggested that this could be due to the gender role expectations that fathers have of being protectors and providers for their families, thus having to give that role to their children could result in more negative emotional and behavioural adjustments.

In another study looking at language brokering in context, Roche and colleagues (2014) sought to find out how language brokering in different settings, such as the school, the home, or the larger community, impacted parent-child closeness, the parents’ decision-making authority, and their knowledge of their children’s activities. They hypothesised that language brokering at school would be associated with more positive parenting outcomes, but at home and in the community it would be related to less trust, parent-child closeness, decision-making authority, and knowledge about their children’s activities. They also hypothesised that the positive outcomes related to language brokering at school would increase with grades in school while the negative outcomes related to the home and the community would also increase.

The study was conducted with the participation of 118 children of Latino origin from suburban Atlanta. Computer based surveys were administered to the participants during class time. In addition to demographic information, the surveys gathered information on language brokering activities at school, at home, and in other places such as stores, the hospital, or government offices. They also measured parent decision-making authority, knowledge, and mother-child closeness. The findings indicated that brokering in the home was associated with less parent-child closeness and less control over children’s behaviours by parents. But brokering in the school and community was not significantly associated with any differences in parent-child relationships or practices. The results suggest that language brokering might occur in very context specific ways and have different impacts on parent-child relationships and parenting methods.

Looking at the results of a study by Weisskirch (2012) can help give further insight into just how complex the interaction between language brokering and parent child relations and put the findings of Roche’s study in context. Weisskirch found that parental support was a strong predictor of whether or not participants felt burdened by language brokering. In cases when they didn’t, language brokers showed high levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy. Roche and colleagues demonstrated that language brokering in the home was associated with parent-child closeness and could negatively impact it. This in turn could impact the child’s attitude on language brokering and lead to negative effects.

In continuing to examine language brokering in context, Dorner and colleagues (2008) looked at how the responsibilities of adolescent language brokers changed over time, how they viewed those responsibilities, and the impact those changes had on their development. A two year case study was conducted with 18 children from a Chicago public elementary school. The researchers documented every day activities and translating experiences of the participants by observing them in and out of school, with their families, and also by interviewing the participants themselves as well as their parents and teachers. The participants’ translating experiences were recorded when the opportunity presented itself.

Two years later, follow-up interviews were conducted with 12 of the initial participants. They asked the participants about their translation experiences in and outside the home, and the changing dynamics within the home. They found that the participants translated more as they got older, but the translating activities became more common outside the home since within the house they tended to pass on their responsibilities to younger siblings. The participants had also confessed that translating had gotten easier as they gotten older and they felt good about being able to help other people. For some participants however language brokering was seen as an inconvenience. These results suggested that as they got older, participants got accustomed to their roles as language brokers and were able to draw some benefits from it.

To investigate the way in which additional factors affected language brokering Kam and Lazarevic (2013) looked at how positive feelings about language brokering impacted depression and substance use in language brokers. They hypothesised that when adolescents took part in language brokering activities more frequently they would be more likely to develop depressive symptoms and substance use. However those who had positive feelings and norms towards language brokering would be less likely to develop depression or substance use. The study was conducted using surveys administered to 6th to 8th grade students in three public schools in rural Illinois. This study also found that adolescence who had a negative perception of language brokering were more likely to experience stress related to acculturation, and more likely to turn to substance use. These findings further reinforced the idea that the perception on language brokering might be a bigger factor in determining the effects of the act of language brokering.

Buriel and colleagues (1998) also found that the attitude towards language brokering was related to social self-efficacy, and biculturalism, the latter of which was found to have a unique positive effect on academic performance. The correlation between language brokering and biculturalism and the relation between the two and self-efficacy suggest that having experiences in two languages and two cultures can result in greater self-confidence in social interactions. These suggestions go in a similar direction to those of a study by Niehaus and Kumpiene (2014) who found that language brokering difficulty and attitudes were predictors of self-concept. Students who had successfully brokered in difficult situations felt more confident and had a stronger belief that they could do well in the classroom. It was hypothesised that this could stem from their belief that when they successfully brokered language they could also successfully manage other difficult tasks.

Looking at these studies, one recurring theme that can be discerned is that of the importance of context when looking at the effects of biculturalism. Being bicultural in a cross-cultural context presents a challenge to identity formation, and the way that challenge is dealt with determines the effects that can be seen. Bilingualism seems to be the first way of identifying oneself with a particular culture, and this bilingualism is itself also dependent on context. When bilinguals are in a context where they have a strong support network, they have a stronger sense of identity and belonging. This strong sense of identity will then further reinforce itself by encouraging them to strengthen that network. The effects of the support network can also be seen when looking at language brokering. As seen in the study by Dorner and colleagues (2008), as language brokers got older more of their language brokering activities began to take place outside of the home. This means that the network of people they interacted with in their second language got larger. The importance of context is also brought into emphasis when looking at the effects of language brokering itself. Language brokering when done within a supportive environment, without too much pressure on the brokers, can have a positive impact. Language brokers have been shown to have higher self-efficacy, better self-concept, and view their biculturalism in a more positive light. Perception on language brokering also influenced its impact on the language brokers. Those who saw it as a burden tended to be more negatively impacted, and they also had a more negative perception of their own biculturalism. In conclusion, in the right context there can be clear benefits to biculturalism and bilingualism. It can positively impact self-esteem, self-efficacy, and positively contribute to identity formation. However when it in some way impedes development or acculturation, it can be a source of stress and have negative impact.

Florian Craan

Work Cited

Buriel, R., Perez, W., De Ment, T. L.,  Chavez, D. V.,  Moran, V. R. (1998). The elationship of language brokering to academic performance, biculturalism, and self-efficacy among latino american adolescents. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 20(3), 283–297.

Chen, S. X., Bond, H. M. (2010). Two languages, two personalities? Examining language effects on the expression of personality in a bilingual context. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(11), 1514–1528.

Dorner, L. M.,  Orellana, M. F., Jiménez, R. (2008). Language brokering and the development of immigrant adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research, 23(5), 515–543.

Fielding, R.,  Harbon, L. (2013). Examining bilingual and bicultural identity in young students Foreign Language Annals, 46(4), 527–544.

Gaudet, S., Clement, R. (2008). Forging an identity as a linguistic minority: Intra- and intergroup aspects of language, communication and identity in Western Canada. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 33(2008), 213–227.

Hua, J. A.,  Costigan. C. L. (2011). The familial context of adolescent language brokering within immigrant chinese families in Canada. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41, 894–906.

Kam, J. A., Lazarevic, V. (2013). The stressful (and not so stressful) nature of language brokering: identifying when brokering functions as a cultural stressor for latino immigrant children in early adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43, 1994–2011.

Love, J. A.,  Buriel, R. (2007). Language brokering, autonomy, parent-child bonding, biculturalism, and depression. A study of mexican american adolescents from immigrant families. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 29(4), 472–491.

Martinez, C.R. Jr., McClure, H. H., Eddy, M. J. (2009). Language brokering contexts and behavioral and emotional adjustment among latino parents and adolescents. Journal of Early Adolescence, 29(1), 71–98.

Niehaus, K., Kumpiene, G. (2014). Language brokering and self-concept: an exploratory study of latino students’ experiences in middle and high school. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 36(2), 124–143.

Roche, K. M., Ghazarian, S. R., Lambert, S. F., Little, T. D. (2014). Adolescent language brokering in diverse contexts: associations with parenting and parent–youth relationships in a new immigrant destination area. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(77–89).

Weisskirch, R. S. (2012). Family relationships, self-esteem, and self-efficacy among language brokering mexican american emerging adults. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 22, 1147–1155.






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