How learning a second language can determine to what ethnic group people belong

Image by Taylor B on flikr.com

Learning a second language means more than only memorising words. It could change your whole life.

“Who are you?”

The answer to this apparently simple question has made researchers spend centuries investigating the relationship between people and identity. Studies in the anthropology field have shown that language is an essential point to determine what ethnic group an individual belongs to. 

Macmillan dictionary defines Identity as: 

  • the qualities that make someone or something what they are and different from other people;
  • who you are or what your name is.

The study of language and language learning has been closely linked to the term identity, which has become one of the main positions in linguistic anthropology.

Linguistic mainstreams argue that people’s identity is mainly determined by the language they speak. However, what happens when somebody decides to acquire a second language or even a third one? How will they relate to this new culture, ideologies and costumes? How is someone’s ethnic identity framed through language practices?

There are also theorists who claim that the relation between people and the world can determine if their identity will change or not in time, depending on the changing social and economic relations.

“Speaking various languages can be a catalyst for self-awareness. I’ve learned an incredible amount about myself through my language abilities.”

There are some patterns of how individuals’ conceptions of ethnic identity might connect in the process of language learning:

  • The first pattern is about individuals who lose their own language and culture when they acquire a language of a majority group, which is called bilingualism or assimilation. 
  • The second pattern is called additive bilingualism or integration and it is about not losing their own language culture when learning a second language. Instead, the learners add the new language and culture to their own. 

Those categories are valuable for the study of ethnic identity so it is possible to understand how one develops a second language.

Khrystian Pereira
Image provided by Khystian

Khrystian Pereira, a young professional whose work focuses on diversity and inclusion, has dedicated his life to study other cultures and learn new languages. He is a native of Brazil and also has American citizenship. He speaks Brazilian Portuguese, English, French, Italian, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese and Korean.

Khrystian describes his experience in learning new languages and how they have shaped his own ethnic belonging.

Betia: How is your ethnic identity framed through a second language?  

Khrystian: “I was born in Brazil and at a young age my parents brought me to the United States, where I grew up, language undoubtedly shaped my frame of mind, my thought process, and even my belief system.

Being an immigrant, a person of color, in white suburban Northeast United States, all I wanted was to fit in. Distancing myself from my Latino roots and homogenizing with the general population surrounding me was, at times, a matter of survival.

As a child, if I only spoke English, embraced the version of American culture surrounding me, it meant that I was less likely to be ostracized for being different.

I only consumed media and entertainment in English and dreaded speaking Portuguese in public. There was such resentment when, as an 8-year old kid, I had to translate for my parents when they wanted to fight a utility bill or a mischarge. 

It is an inevitable truth that when an individual is fully immersed in a new language, common expressions, colloquialisms, experiences, traumas, and even one’s humor can impact them.

B: Do you act differently depending on the language you’re speaking?

K: Speaking various languages can be a catalyst for self-awareness. I’ve learned an incredible amount about myself through my language abilities.

I do act differently depending on the language I am speaking, especially if it is coupled with being in a foreign country. For example:

  • English: even though English is not my first language, learning it as a child and using it as a primary language not only in my relationships but also academically, and professionally, I can fluctuate and flex in this language and adapt more easily. Meaning, I can structure any interaction with much more ease formally or informally. This is not to be misconstrued with fluency.
  • Portuguese: I am also fluent in Portuguese and I can explain the same ideas that I can express in English in this language, however, I don’t like to. An example of personality variation when speaking different languages is that my early education years were in Portuguese. As a child, I learned which words were good and which were bad in Portuguese. This early childhood development phase created a default in my brain that does not allow me to swear/use bad words in Portuguese but I can in English since it is the language that shaped my pre-teen to adulthood experiences, meaning rebellious years and consuming media that normalized those types of words.
  • Italian, French, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Korean: Since I studied and learned these languages in a highly academic setting, my immersion in their equivalent countries depicts a more formal and serious version of myself. It is more difficult for me to express my English self in these languages, not for lack of abilities, but because my thoughts were framed differently when learning these.

B: Do you change when speaking a second language? If so, how? why do you think it happens?

K: I do change when speaking another language. In my experience, English and Portuguese have not been primarily used in formal occasions. My quirky personality often takes over and I can use my linguistic nuances to make a point whether or not the interaction can be considered a formal or serious one. Additionally, comfort in a language, despite an individual’s ability, will impact the way you can observe changes in personality. 

B: What language do you identify yourself most with? Why?

K: I mostly identify with English, but that is not to say that my brain is not a mishmash of at least seven languages. Psychologically speaking, your state of mind and thought process is shaped by your life experiences. For example:

  •  I learned basic mathematics in Portuguese when I was a child, and to this day, if I have to do quick math in my head, I do it in Portuguese. Same goes for the months of the year. I may be fluent in English, but in my head, I say the months of the year in Portuguese;
  • Waking up from a fainting episode, my emergency survival brain, as I like to call it, is in Portuguese;
  • If I am resolving a complex problem, I process information in English;
  • If I am learning a new language, I take all my notes generally in English and French as these were the first two foreign languages I learned;
  • I exclaim and emphasize points in all of my other languages mixed in my everyday vocabulary. My friends and family have gotten used to it.”

It is evident that there is an undeniable link between language and ethnic identity.

When an individual uses a language or a second one, they are presenting their ethnic identity to the world and this process is not as simple as one could think. It involves the choice of linguistic repertoires that are employed as well as the identities that are construed. In fact, in many contexts, multiple identities can be construed depending on the areas of life such as education, home, etc.

Learning a new language goes beyond acquiring a new linguistic system. The whole experience involves being part of a new world, a new way of behaving and understanding ‘the other’ from a different perspective.

About Betia Rodrigues 10 Articles
A Brazilian journalist living in Ireland. Hold a master's in Journalism and Media Communications from Griffith college. Passionate about writing, producing videos and languages.

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