Language and Identity

This past October, I attended the 2017 International Baccalaureate (IB) Global Conference in The Hague, Netherlands. One of the presentations I attended was by Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neurologist and psychologist at the University of Southern California. Her research on how students’ emotional states influence their learning receptivity reminded me of the many discussions I have had with students who are studying their first languages. In previous newsletter articles, I have focused on the cognitive, economic and cultural advantages to developing bi- and multilingualism. Inspired by Immordino-Yang’s work, I will now shift my discussion to the question of how our languages take shape and inform who we are and how we relate to others.

The relationship between language and identity is complex. The languages an individual speaks is certainly not the only thing that defines who an individual is, but it does reveal something about his or her experiences, beliefs and attitudes. Our identities constantly evolve over time as we navigate different social contexts and adopt the many identities they entail. The IB publishes guidelines on many aspects of international education, including language learning. In its ‘Language and Learning in IB Programmes’ (2014) publication, the IB examines the role of language in the development of an individual’s identity. The IB suggests that the languages we use to communicate are connected to our own personal development, and the choice to develop ‘multiliteracies’ can even foster a sense of empowerment (IBO, 2014). Indeed, their use of the word ‘empowerment’ highlights the strong emotional component associated with learning new languages or continuing to develop home languages.

Along with the positive emotional states associated with language learning, there can also be negative feelings individuals can experience when they feel that they are losing a language, a sort of ‘language mourning’. As Castro, Lundgren & Woodin (2015) state in their discussion of multilingualism, when individuals feel their local and national identities are under threat, this can affect the potential to extend their horizons and participate in global citizenship. In addition, having an understanding of one’s own identity can be useful in understanding the identity of others. Bi- and multilingual children in international schools often have unique linguistic and educational profiles, which make them a heterogeneous group that require bespoke academic programmes. Franceschini (2009) discusses how being part of a multilingual community can help develop an individual’s own multilingual development. However, she also makes the point that ‘not every society which claims to be multilingual necessarily produces multilingual individuals’ (2009: 33). Developing the optimal environment and support in which to nurture and harness balanced multilingualism is one of the biggest challenges that schools, communities and families with complex linguistic profiles have to face.

What is clear is that there is an emotional component to learning and using languages that influences an individual’s sense of his or her identity. When a child’s languages are valued, the child can experience an increase in self-esteem, which can enhance their motivation to learn (IBO, 2014). With this in mind, I asked students from Grade 7-12 who are studying their first language to discuss how they feel about their languages and their identities. In their responses, the students used words such as ‘happy’, ‘comforting’ and ‘safe’. They discussed feeling empowered and newly connected. They mentioned how studying their first language has addressed the fears they had about losing their languages or growing disconnected from their families, peers and their culture. Most of the students felt there was a strong connection between their languages and the shaping of their identities. They talked about how their languages influenced the way they view the world and how they interact with others. Importantly, a point that was often made was that it is not just the development of a home language that shapes your identity, but your experience of learning different  languages.

Through reading the overall linguistics discourse on the links between language learning, emotions and identity, and discussing these issues with students, I have concluded that providing bi- and multilingual children with opportunities for linguistic growth helps with their personal development and their ability to engage with others; this aligns with the IB’s view that both families, schools and communities should strive to furnish ‘social and emotional conditions’ that value all languages and strengthen intercultural awareness (IB, 2014: 30).


Castro, P., Lundgren, U., & Woodin, J. (2015). International mindedness through the looking glass: reflections on a concept. Journal of Research in International Education, 14 (3), 187-197.

Franceschini, R. (2009). The genesis and development of research in multilingualism. The exploration of multilingualism: Development of research on L3, 27-61.

IBO (2014) Language and Learning in IB Programmes. Cardiff: IBO.

Language Development of Young Bi- and Multilingual Children: FAQs

By Lorna Caputo

Basic linguistic development is in its own right a complex and much-researched area of study, but when children grow up learning and using a plurality of languages, the cognitive processes are even more intricate and the research can be tricky to navigate. While social media, blogs and mainstream news outlets can be helpful in generating discussion about language learning, for parents and teachers of bi- and multilingual children, I always stress the need to access the research and academic discourse as directly as possible, which is why I use social media spaces so people can openly talk about questions they have about bi- and multilingualism, and where the latest research can be shared. In this post, I am going to address some of the key questions that frequently come up in my discussions with parents and teachers, and to which we often return to in social media discussion and research, I will also present a brief overview of the current research and discourse on the subject. 

How many languages can a young child learn at the same time?

This is a long-standing question that continues to be a topic of discussion in both neurolinguistic (i.e. the study of language and the structure of the brain) and psycholinguistic (i.e. the study of the psychological processes involved in language development) research. Two of the main areas discussed are a) the impact of learning more than one language on the brain, and b) the effect of the specific social and environmental conditions and pressures involved in the acquisition of more than one language; these are both topics of research that are further informed by whether the languages are being learned simultaneously or sequentially. Pettito et al (2001), for example, take on what they identified to be a misconception that the brain cannot handle the cognitive load of learning more than one language at a time; their research instead suggests that the brain is indeed ‘wired’ to process multiple languages simultaneously, and that the increased cognitive burden could enhance the development of executive functioning skills (as reinforced by Bialystok, Craik, Green & Gollan, 2009).

In general, language development greatly depends on the environment in which it is learned, specifically the quality and quantity of the input the child is exposed to. Moreover, the brain is capable of learning several languages at the same time, but the proficiency level of each language is largely contingent on the quality and quantity of the exposure to the languages being learned (Hua & Wei, 2005; Hoff et al, 2012). The exact number of languages a child can learn concurrently will vary from child to child based on their individual motivations, abilities and the input to which he or she is exposed.

Are my bi-lingual or multilingual child’s languages developing normally

Some schools have culturally and linguistically complex populations made up of students who have often vastly different home and educational experiences, sometimes even between siblings. The question is therefore challenging to address, as it requires a comparison to be made to some kind of norm group derived from what is an inherently diverse population in terms of educational, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Current research states that bilingual children reach most language development milestones at the same time as monolingual children, but there is research that suggests bilingual children may develop speech slightly later than monolingual children (Sorace, 2007) and demonstrate different speech patterns (Hua & Wei, 2005).

In studies that have compared vocabulary levels between bi- and monolingual children, the bilingual children’s vocabularies have been found to be lower than monolinguals in each of their languages, but overall are equal or even higher when all languages are combined, results theorised to be a natural result of learning some words in one language and other words in the other language(s) (Bialystok et al, 2009). Bi- and multilingual children can also have special characteristics, such as ‘language mixing’ and ‘language play’, that are different from monolingual children (De Zarobe & De Zarobe, 2015). Even though bi- and multilingual children’s linguistic development is complex, there are indicators that can help distinguish if any challenges they are experiencing are normal given their circumstances (Wei, Miller, Dodd & Hua, 2005). If you have any concerns about your child’s language development, we would recommend that you speak to your child’s teachers or clinician.

If my child’s home language is different from the school language, why is it important for my child to continue to learn his or her home language?

There is much research dedicated to identifying the various effects of being educated in a ‘new’ language, and, in parallel, the cognitive, social and employability benefits of continuing the development of strong first language skills in the meantime in order to avoid linguistic attrition.(Cummins, 1976; Toukomaa & Skutnabb-Kangas, 1977; Baker, 2011; Iluz-Cohen & Armon-Lotem, 2013; Jensen de Lopéz & Baker, 2015; De Angelis, 2015). I would advise we should emphasise the need for consistent exposure to high quality linguistic input in the students’ other language(s) as a means of enhancing their overall personal and academic development.

How can I support my child develop his or her languages?

There are many advantages to developing balanced bi- and multilingualism. Young multilingual children usually enjoy developing their home language(s) because it connects them with friends and family who share the language(s). Very young simultaneous bilingual children (children who have developed two languages since birth) particularly benefit from the cognitive advantages of balanced bilingual development. Young bi- and multilingual children are susceptible to subtractive bilingualism, particularly due to attitudes towards delaying or not developing literacy in the first language, or by an increased focus in the home on developing the school language of instruction.

Some bi- and multilingual children arriving at the school in the primary years have already developed literacy skills in their first language. These children benefit from first language maintenance, particularly if families intend on returning the child to home educational systems. They benefit from additive bilingualism that has a focus on developing balanced bilingualism, and they are also at risk of subtractive bilingualism if the first language is neglected and replaced by a focus on the language of instruction at school.

What you can do:

–     Have your child attend a first language class, which will help him or her develop a deeper and broader vocabulary as well as refine their grammatical knowledge. At the same time, they will also make friends with other speakers of that language, and use their first language in an authentic way. It is especially important that your child develops academic first language skills if you intend for your child to have education in their first language in the future.

–     Provide your child with opportunities to be exposed to rich language (vocabulary, song, rhyme, word play, etc.) in a variety of contexts (home, museums, trips, experiences, etc.).

–     Expose your child to TV, films, books and pop music in their first language.

–     Make regular play dates or participate in activities where the first language will be used.

–     Use nannies and au pairs that are proficient speakers of your child’s languages, especially if they are the main carer.

–     Ask your friends and family members to use one language consistently with your child, so the child knows which language to speak with different people.

–     Be aware that if you are not a native speaker of your child’s first language and you choose to speak that language at home, your child may not be exposed to the cultural richness of the language that native speakers acquire and use (idiomatic expressions, cultural references and pronunciation, for example).  (Caputo & Martin, 2016).


Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. UK: Multilingual Matters.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., Green, D. W., & Gollan, T. H. (2009). Bilingual minds. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 10(3), 89-129.

Caputo, L., & Martin, J. (2016, February 4). The Benefits of First Language Development. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from

Cummins, J. (1976). The influence of bilingualism on cognitive growth: a synthesis of research findings and explanatory hypotheses. Working Papers on Bilingualism, No. 9.

De Angelis, G. D. (2015). English L3 learning in a multilingual context: The role of parental education and L2 exposure within the living community. International Journal of Multilingualism, 12(4), 435-452.

De Zarobe, L. R., & DeZarobe, Y. R. (2015). New perspectives on multilingualism and L2 acquisition: An introduction. International Journal of Multilingualism, 12(4), 393-403.

Hoff, E., Core, C., Place, S., Rumiche, R., Señor, M., & Parra, M. (2012). Dual language exposure and early bilingual development. Journal of Child Language, 39(01), 1-27.

Hua, Z. & Wei, L. (2005). Bi- and Multilingual Acquisition. In Clinical Sociolinguistics (pp. 193-206). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Iluz-Cohen, P., & Armon-Lotem, S. (2013). Language proficiency and executive control            in bilingual children. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 16(04), 884-899.

Jensen de López, K. M., & Baker, A. E. (2015). Executive Functions in the assessment of        bilingual children with language impairment. In Multilingualism and Language impairment: Methodological issues (pp. 275-299). Channel View Publications.

Petitto, L.A., Katerelos, M., Levy, B.G., Gauna, K., Tetreault, K. and Ferraro, V. (2001). Bilingual signed and spoken language acquisition from birth: implications for the mechanism underlying early bilingual language acquisition. Journal of Child Language      28, 453-496.

Sorace, A. (2007). The more, the merrier: facts and beliefs about the bilingual mind. In Tall Tales about the Mind and the Brain: Separating Fact from Fiction, (pp.193-203).

Toukomaa, P. & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1977). The Intensive Teaching of the Mother Tongue to Migrant Children at Pre-School Age (Research Report No. 26). Department of Sociology and Social Psychology, University of Tampere.

Wei, L., Miller, N., Dodd, B., & Hua, Z. (2005). Childhood Bilingualism. In Clinical Sociolinguistics (pp. 193-206). Malden , MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Using Inquiry-Based Learning with EAL Students

In 2014, I contributed a chapter to a book on the theory and practice of inquiry-based learning, a teaching approach much promoted in international schools. My chapter outlines a method for teaching additional languages in a way that supports both classwork and the development of communicative skills. In this post, I would like to share with you some of the key issues explored in my chapter and a 2014 conference presentation as a means of highlighting how inquiry-based learning can augment language acquisition for EAL students.

Inquiry-Based Learning: A Key Method 

Inquiry-based learning is not new; it was discussed as a learning approach in the 1960s and it has been a central part of the IBO’s (International Baccalaureate Organisation’s) approach to education for the past thirty years. While there has always been healthy discussion on the use of inquiry-based learning as a teaching method in primary education, it is only in the last fifteen years that it has been picked up by linguists and educators who are keen to explore its use in the teaching of additional languages. For example, Making The PYP Happen, an IBO guideline published in 2009, embeds several central tenets of inquiry-based learning into the IBO’s recommended language-teaching methodology.

Understanding Inquiry-Based Learning Using Our Own Language Learning Experiences

In order to fully understand inquiry-based language learning, we have to make a distinction between the sort of teaching techniques normally employed in foreign language courses and the type of support given to EAL students who are learning English while learning in English. Almost all of us can remember learning another language at school, and many of us currently attend language courses here in Switzerland; language learning in such contexts tends to focus on situational communication, i.e. the ability to communicate one’s needs and preferences on a basic level in a variety of common situations. Some of us may also have experienced the necessity to study more advanced aspects of another language in order to perform better at work or complete a university education. In these situations, you may have encountered a range of teaching approaches, from traditional grammar worksheets and language labs (‘listen and repeat’) to more progressive (and fun) methods that employ role play and games. It is important to realise that this type of language learning experience differs from that of EAL students, whose overall education depends on their ability to engage with a curriculum in a language other their mother tongue, a difference that greatly informs our approach to EAL support.

EAL teachers respond to students’ needs by ensuring that their language learning is connected to their experiences and that they are able to communicate their thoughts and opinions as clearly as possible; to do so, during EAL lessons, teachers often include mention of current events in and out of school and encourage students to share their personal viewpoints. By expanding the sphere of reference beyond the classroom, many linguistic elements can be investigated and practised in an authentic and meaningful way. Hence, in order to extend the range of experiences that can be reflected upon and discussed at school, we encourage students, along with their parents, to visit museums and participate in local cultural events, as well as watch movies and read a range of fiction and non-fiction books in their strongest language (indeed, as I discussed in a previous post, the development of mother tongue skills enhances English language development).

As the IBO explains in its publication on teaching and learning language (Language Scope and Sequence, 2009), inquiry-based learning strengthens the language skills necessary for students’ social interactions with both teachers and their peers. Motivated by their desire to interact with others, new EAL students tend to develop social language skills rapidly by copying others’ behaviours as they learn the daily school routines. Social English is indeed essential, but as we know, success in school requires more than just the social use of a language. Proficient knowledge of the language of instruction is critical to facilitate understanding of increasingly complex academic ideas; hence, EAL support strives to ensure that students possess the language skills necessary to demonstrate their comprehension of new concepts. EAL teachers design learning activities that explore the types of grammar and lexis that students will need to access the curriculum, as well as to support the development of students’ more general skills of inquiry, such as the ability to raise pertinent questions, reflect on complex ideas, and initiate independent research. If an EAL teacher is working with a student on a specific literacy skill, for example, hypothesis testing, a key component of inquiry-based learning, can be used as a technique to make learning more engaging and meaningful. For parents of EAL students who are eager to support this kind of academic language development, we encourage discussion that promotes reflection, question-raising, and the exploration of nuance. Again, we recommend that such conversations are conducted in a student’s mother tongue so that his or her cognitive abilities can be fully exercised, a linguistic skill that will take time to develop in English.

Closing Thoughts

EAL students depend on improving their English not only in order to communicate better, but as the linguistic means through which they can nurture their ability to learn. EAL teachers at our school endeavour to apply inquiry-based techniques to the support they provide in a manner that compliments EAL students’ ongoing cognitive development. Whilst it is true that, at times, inquiry-based methods can look very different from traditional language learning methods, it is this difference, in particular its emphasis on responsiveness, authenticity and intellectual-engagement, that makes this approach a useful means of ensuring that students get the most out of their shared learning environment.

[1] Caputo, L. (2014) ‘Using Inquiry-Based Learning to Teach Additional Languages in a High School Context’, in: P. Blessinger and J. M. Carfora (eds.) Inquiry-Based Learning for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences: A Conceptual and Practical Resource for Educators (Innovations in Higher EducationTeaching and Learning, Volume 2), Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 369 – 391.