Multilingual identity and foreign language learning

by Karen Forbes

To have another language is to possess a second soul.

A few months ago I was in the park with a friend and her seven-year-old son. As he was playing he started talking to two other young boys, one of whom was Asian. After a while he came back over to us, and his mum asked who his new friends were. He excitedly replied: “They're called Tom and Kevin and they go to my school, but Kevin is from China, I didn't even know I could speak Chinese!” Even though he had been speaking in English, the simple act of having communicated with someone who also knew another language was enough for him to identify himself as multilingual.

In contrast, take a former (English) colleague of mine. She had studied Spanish for five years at school, and as an adult decided to take an evening language class to refresh her memory. She enjoyed taking advantage of opportunities to converse in Spanish when we were together. Yet when we were talking about this one day she was quick to add: “Oh, but I don’t speak proper Spanish, it’s not like I’m bilingual or anything”. Even though she clearly had an interest in the language and more than a basic level of conversational fluency, she was reluctant to acknowledge this as part of her linguistic profile.

But what does it mean to identify yourself as multilingual? And what relationship does this have with language learning in school? These are just some of the questions we will be asking as part of Strand 4 of the MEITS project.

From my own experiences of being a language learner, a secondary school teacher of Modern Foreign Languages, and later a researcher of language education, I have thought a lot about what it means to know a language and how language has the power to shape who you are and how you see the world. In today’s multilingual and multicultural society, there is an ever growing need for young people to be able to communicate in more than one language and, by extension, there is a corresponding need to recognise and support the crucial role of schools in facilitating this.

Indeed, the vast majority of schools across the UK today have learners with a rich and diverse range of linguistic profiles – from native English speaking pupils who are beginner learners of foreign languages such as French, German and Spanish, to recently arrived migrant students who are already proficient in another language and who may be acquiring a third, fourth or fifth language in the classroom. Yet there is little evidence into how the linguistic background of learners influences their achievement in a foreign language, or into the way in which they develop their identities as multilinguals through learning another language. Within this strand of the MEITS project we are aiming to explore different ways to help learners to identify themselves as multilingual, with a view to improving motivation and achievement in school and promoting greater engagement in language learning. 

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