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.


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