Bilingual Identity: Work in Progress

The bilingual journey is a long one, both to develop the language skills but also the bilingual identity.  What I experienced at the beginning of last week, was there to remind me of it.

For the last couple of weeks, I have noticed that whenever she picked up a book for a little independent reading, nine times out of ten, my eldest chose a Majority Language (ML) book.  Now, our home is a minority language (ml) only home. But I cannot exclude Majority Language literacy completely as our aim is to have balanced trilingual and triliterate children. School ensures the teaching of the ML literacy skills, yet over time I have come to realise that it cannot do it all and we have to supplement their work with extra reading at home. Hence, when my little one is out of ear-shot, I will grab one of the rare ML books we have at home and have my eldest read a little.  However, my eldest having this massive bias for the ML, she -as I had instinctively anticipated- began favouring ML books. One morning, I put it clearly to her that though we tolerate ML books at home to strengthen her reading skills, she has to balance out her reading between her 3 languages, and that I had noticed her little “game” of only reading in the Majority Language. She gave a guilty smile, and when we discussed the importance of balancing out so as to be “good” in reading in all 3 languages, she opened-up.  

She started crying, saying that at school she sometimes did not know the Majority Language words. She only knew them in her 2 minority languages.  I could feel her anguish and frustration transpire.

The whole situation threw me a little.  For one, I still see my eldest as so “French” with her obstinate bias for that language, her bad habit of often thinking in French and translating as she talks, and her noticeable French accent.  So hearing that her minority languages’ vocabulary could be more developed than her Majority Language’s completely stunned me… it had simply never occured to me it could be so.

Then, stupidly, it did not even occur to me she would realise her vocabulary gap and be so upset about it.  And truth be told, her tears pained me. Having been raised as a “sequential” trilingual kid (3 languages learned successively), it was normal for the 10-year-old I was then to feel a gap in my knowledge from 1 language to another.  However, my daughter being raised as a “simultaneous” trilingual (all languages learned at the same time), at almost 7, she does not yet have the maturity to identify the gap she feels as normal and appreciate that it will evolve in due time.

Mistakenly, I thought she had finally accepted her trilingual identity, though with her strong preference for French. However, I realised that developing a trilingual identity goes beyond the child identifying his or her language skills (see Food for thought – How a child discovers his or her bilingual identity). It involves a lot more questioning, worries and frustrations.

I had to explain to my eldest, reassure her that this was part of the learning process and it happens to bi-/multilinguals, even as adults.  To try and dispel her frustration, I suggested she should write down/take a mental note of ML words she looks for so she can ask me in the evening.

Every evening after school, I also try to remember to ask her if she has been confronted with a word she did not know in the ML.  So far, she had none. My thoughts are that she either forgot about any she might have had, or maybe she in fact faces these situations more scarcely than our discussion suggested; though when faced they undeniably are enough to frustrate her greatly.

This heart-to-heart discussion was an eye-opener and most enriching. The trilingual identity is definitely a work in progress to which I have to be a lot more attentive. This even more so as we have chosen not to allow the Majority Language at home to protect our minority languages, and hence we would not want our eldest growing resentful of her minority languages about this.  The bi-/multilingual identity is one that will bloom along with the child’s personality and probably language skills, both minority and majority.

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