How plurilingualism enriches our identity

Ever since our school days, during our French, German or Spanish classes, we have always been told how plurilingualism would allow us to open up much better to the world and its opportunities. That is, of course, not a discovery of the latest decades: the famous German poet and playwright Goethe wrote in 1821 that “Anyone who doesn’t know foreign languages knows nothing of his own.”[1]

Aphorisms aside, however, does learning languages actually make us different in our everyday lives? Do our experiences with other languages impact our identity, i.e. the way in which we see ourselves and tell about who we are?

To discover how languages contribute to widening our personal identity, it might be, first of all, necessary to introduce a few socio-psychological studies on the identity construction process. Thus, I will try to explain the influence of plurilingualism on our individual self-conceptions.

Plurilingualism and identity - Erik Erikson and George Mead
Erik Erikson and George Mead

The research on identity and plurilingualism

Although the word identitas already appeared in Medieval Latin[2], today’s concept of identity has only become a subject of study starting from the mid-20th century. Among the first scholars, the German American researcher Erik Erikson found that our innermost identity (which he called ‘ego identity’) stemmed from an attempt to find continuity and coherence in our lives.  In other words, we create our own identity to define ourselves and to be able to answer the fateful question ‘Who am I’?[3]

Another scholar, George Mead, has, instead, observed how interpersonal communication constituted the starting point for the development of our own identity, especially during and after childhood.  In fact, at an early age, the first exchanges with other individuals take place through play with other children: through role-play (e.g. mother, policewoman, teacher) children experiment with a series of social roles which, in time, will help them to build up their own self-conception. Therefore, according to Mead, playing is a crucial step to our self-understanding.[4][5]

However, since both play and dialogue could never take place without communication, language appears to be an inevitable tool for interaction, therefore fundamental to the construction of our identity.

If it is true that without languages it would be hard to communicate, using a language is equally fundamental to describe ourselves and tell others about us. In this respect, the German socio-psychologist Heiner Keupp (and a large team of other scholars) meticulously studied the act of self-narration, by comparing the construction of our identities to sewing. In his view, we sew and patch up the present, past, and future experiences of our lives by telling them. We narrate about ourselves, construct our own identity and communicate it to others. Without language, we could neither weave nor communicate that self-vision that we carefully build and reassemble over time.[6]

What about plurilingualism?

If language plays a fundamental role in our cultural identity, what happens to identity when we speak and integrate several different languages into our lives?

The researcher Bonny Norton, who analysed migrants’ learning of the language of their country of arrival, has a clear opinion on the matter. In her view, acquiring a new language does not only mean obtaining the ability to interact with those people who speak it. By acquiring new languages, we also reorganise the way we see ourselves and our social relationship with the world. In other words, Norton believes that adopting a ‘foreign’ language means rearranging the manner in which we communicate and relate to others as much as to ourselves: welcoming new norms, new sounds, new beauty, new ways of expressing ourselves.[7][8]

However, another scholar, Peter Ecke, has proved that plurilingualism does not always come without a cost. In several of his empirical studies, he has shown how the acquisition of a second language can undermine the mastery of the first if the second is used far more than the native one. In other words, a second language can sometimes ‘take the place’ of the first and limit its use, eventually relegating it to a minor language.[9]

Contrary to this sense of loss highlighted by Ecke, nevertheless, from an identity perspective, our linguistic profile can only benefit from plurilingualism. According to the Croatian researcher Marijana Kresić, every individual possesses a linguistic identity composed of a network of languages and registers that intersect and relate to each other.  For example, the researcher identifies herself with a ‘linguist (especially active in German), mother, native Croatian speaker, Anglicist, fan and chatwoman.’[10] Each social role the scholar identifies with reflects a specific variety, register or language, so that every social facet of our person is connected to one specific linguistic aspect.  As a result, each individual’s language identity derives from a patchwork of multiple social roles, each associated with a definite jargon, register or language.[11]

All the above leads us to a specific conclusion. Certainly, Ecke shows that monolingual speakers might develop higher language proficiency levels in their first language than bilinguals. However, only plurilingual speakers have those hybrid linguistic and social features to construct a more complex identity profile. Plurilingual speakers, indeed, build a much wider network of linguistic varieties and codes than monolingual users. Through the acquisition and the practice of new languages, we experiment with various social roles and, consequently, obtain a broader picture of who we are.

Written and translated in English by David Pappalardo



[1] Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. FROM ART AND ANTIQUITY. Vol. III, Issue 1: Own and Adopted Ideas in Proverbial Formulation (1821). In: Goethe J. W., Hutchinson Peter (ed.), Maxims and Reflections. London: Penguin UK, 2005.


[3] Erikson, Erik Homburger. Identity and the Life Cycle, New York/London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994 (1959), 22.

[4] Mead, George Herbert and Morris Charles W (ed.). Mind, Self and Society: from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005 (1934), 135.

[5] Ibid., 150.

[6] Keupp, Heiner et al.. Identitätskonstruktionen. Patchwork der Identitäten in der Spätmoderne, Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch, 2006 (1999), 207-208.

[7] Norton, Bonny. Identity and Language Learning. Extending the Conversation, Bristol/Buffalo/Toronto: Multilingual Matters, 2013, 4.

[8] Abendroth-Timmer, Dagmar and Hennig Eva-Maria. Introduction Plurilingualism and Multiliteracies: Identity Construction in Language Education. In: Abendroth-Timmer D., Hennig E. M. (ed.), Plurilingualism and Multiliteracies, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2014, 28.

[9] Ecke, Peter. Die Kosten der Mehrsprachigkeit: Zeit und Fehler bei der Wortfindung. In “Babylonia“, no. II, 2008, 29-30.

[10] Kresić, Marijana. Sprache, Sprechen und Identität. Studien zur sprachlich-medialen Konstruktion des Selbst, München: Iudicum, 2006, 225.

[11] Ibid., 227-228.

The Minority SafePack: union in diversity and protection of minorities

The languages we speak lay the foundations of the societies with which we identify. We form cultures: communities connected by tradition and tongue. Thus, Europe, and indeed more or less every European country, has always been multicultural. Today, with the EU boasting a membership of 27 States, Europe is a continent of far more cultures than that. To get a feel for just how diverse Europe is, one can look at the truly staggering number of languages spoken within the European Union. Two dozen languages are listed as the official ones of the EU, but we find sixty minority and regional languages within the very same Union (1). Among these are the languages of the sorbs, the frisians and the roma, all spoken in states of other majority cultures. 

Some minority languages – and with them their cultures – are given different levels of autonomy in the states they inhabit. To that category, we can count for example the Ladin-speakers of South Tirol who enjoy a certain devolution of normally regional political competences down to their province of Trentino/Trentin, wherein they also enjoy a designated provincial assembly seat.(2). Other groups maintain their local customs without any additional political privilege. As many of these groups face extinction (3) , Europe both can and must act. 

The Minority SafePack

To this end, the Minority Safepack (4) was conceived. It took the form of a European Citizen’s Initiative [ECI] and was launched by FUEN – the Federal Union of European Nationalities. An ECI is a petition to the European Commission for which you need to collect a million signatures to call for legislation. FUEN is an NGO dedicated to representing the interests of the autochthonous minorities of Europe, and as such the ECI brought forth policies on that topic.

The associated package of reform proposals offers many tools with which Europe can defend the rights of its minorities. Among its specific policies, you find a European Language Diversity Center, a decentralised agency that can foster linguistic and cultural diversity by supporting the efforts of EU Member States. 

The Minority SafePack also proposes taking into consideration the presence of minority languages and cultures as an important added value when earmarking regional development funds from the EU. Beyond this, the package includes copyright reform and freedom of service and reception measures, which would ensure people’s access to audiovisual content without fear of geoblocking and other hurdles on the path to enjoying culture in their language of choice. An example, if banal, would be sports broadcasts, where minorities would like to watch the game in the language of another state, but which due to geoblocking is made unavailable. A more hurtful example is the difficulty to access education in your mother tongue, putting minorities on the track of linguistic assimilation. There are, of course, many more examples of issues where the Minority SafePack will have a tangible impact.

Nobody at Risk

The proposals of the minority safepack have several things in common. Firstly, they offer improvements in the everyday lives of the country’s minorities. They address real problems, and offer a chance for the EU to have tangible impact on the ground. Secondly, they are all deliverable by the current European Institutions – here, the EU has not only the popular backing, but the concrete capacity to do good.

Lastly, and most importantly: no proposal in the Minority SafePack poses the slightest risk for the majority cultures of the member states. The Minority SafePack will not bring about the fragmentation of the member states, but rather the opposite. By embracing the minorities of our continent, we can bring about deeper, more stable unity for future generations. With minority rights ensured on the European level, it takes the wind out of secessionist movements who feed off feelings of discontent and being down-prioritised..

The Minority SafePack has been presented to the European Commission

Indeed, the EU was built to transcend country-internal grievances and for the good of all its peoples, without sacrificing the wellbeing of others. It is thus not only a legal duty and a moral good to work for the vision of the Minority SafePack, it is inextricably linked to the purpose of the Union as a whole. That is the basic idea upon which the European Union is based: the knowledge that we are stronger when banding together. Thus, the EU emerges as the dutiful would-be guarantor longevity of minority languages – and by extension, cultures.

With the Minority SafePack, the European Union can protect cultures that would otherwise risk withering over the course of history, while at the same time not undermining the majority-language institutions of the member states. It is a win-win, and presents a way to foster genuine unity and true diversity. 

Over a million European citizens offered their names to support the European Citizen’s  Initiative (5) , and almost three-quarters of the European Parliament voted to adopt a resolution calling on the Commission to act. For the fifty million Europeans who speak a minority language (6), such resounding political unity spells hope. We can only hope that Commissioner Věra Jourová heeds the call, and that the European Commission decides to draft legislation to protect the abundance of minorities who all inhabit the Union.. 

Joel Boehme










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