Bilingualism and its importance on Student Identity

Classrooms are a significant portion of an individuals childhood and adolescence. Much of individual development overtime takes place within schools. As a result, schools can either play a positive or negative impact on identity development. Generally, schools play a positive role in the identity development of its students. Schools are a place for students to try new things, create new friendships and learn from their experiences. But for bilingual students the ability to develop their identity in a safe and positive manner is often met with more roadblocks than those from monolingual families. Bilingualism is a huge part of a students identity and there are a multitude of ways that educators can celebrate this portion of a students identity within their classrooms. 


What is Identity 

In short, identity is the collection of someone’s values, purpose, and mission. It is often a collection of memories, experiences, and lessons learned combined. Identity can be the field in which a person works, the familial role that they play, or even how someone falls within their social circle. Every role an individual plays is a huge part of how they make decisions. It is important to know that identity evolves and changes over time.


Identity develops through three key ways. 1) Discovering and developing potential, 2) Choosing one’s purpose, and 3) Finding opportunities to develop and exercise that purpose. 


Why is Identity important in the classroom

Identity is incredibly important in classroom settings as that is where a lot of a child or adolescents identity can be impacted and developed. Educators should embrace the idea that education is a social process where identity plays a role in a student’s strengths and contributes to their success in the classroom. 


There are four aspects of identity safety in the classroom where teachers can foster an environment for students to thrive and not feel isolated by aspects of their identity. These aspects are: 

  1. Student Centered teaching: by promoting autonomy, cooperation and student centered voices students are able to learn self efficacy and empowers students to share their ideas and contribute within the classroom environment. 
  2. Cultivating Diversity as a resource: using diversity centered resources and finding opportunities for students to see themselves in the materials used within the classroom. Drawing on multiple viewpoints and conveying high expectations and academic rigor for students of multiple backgrounds encourages student success for everyone. 
  3. Classroom relationships: teacher warmth and availability as well as positive student relationships create peer and teacher interactions that allow for a foundation of trust in the classroom. 
  4. Creating caring classroom environments:: focusing on students social and emotional comfort as well as prosocial development can have a big impact on students comfort in the classroom and their persistence to achieve. Having and understanding of the emotional tone within a classroom helps students to feel secure in expressing their identity. 

How language impacts identity

Students who are bilingual have additional considerations for how their identity develops and changes over time. Students may primarily speak one language at home but be expected to speak English in the classroom. This can create an internal conflict and confusion within a student, even subconsciously. Beyond the differences in language culture is also often impacted through language. A student may be experiencing primarily western influences and culture in the classroom whereas at home other cultural practices are primary. This can cause conflict or shifts in a students home life. 


Language and culture is a huge part of identity and will always be a portion of how an individuals identity is developed. It is important to recognize the role this has and how it can be embraced in the classroom and be a positive part of a students identity development in the classroom. 


Ideas to celebrate bilingualism in the classroom

Celebrating bilingualism in the classroom is a great way to have a positive impact on a students identity and help them connect learning to their language. Some ideas to celebrate bilingualism in the classroom are: 


Incorporate students home languages in the classroom. Allowing students to showcase their home language and learn in both languages has the ability to help solidify learning. 

Provide opportunities to showcase language, while learning, provide opportunities for individuals to share how they pronounce or would say a word or phrase in their home language. 

Classroom Labels: labeling common items around the classroom in multiple languages exposes all children to language diversity. It also affirms the identity of bilingual students, knowing that their languages are recognized in their learning environment.

Literature: Bilingual children are experts in their home language. Finding opportunities to connect their home language to concepts they are learning in the classroom is a great way to help connect concepts across languages. Literature in a child’s home language in the classroom is one option as well as literature that connects both languages. 

Engage Families: Speaking one language at school and another at home can be a difficult challenge for students and their families. Many bilingual students have parents and families are monolingual. Engaging families in learning does wonders for a students persistence in the classroom. Ensuring things like classroom announcements or events are offered in multiple languages can help to bridge the language gap and help to engage families in their students learning.


How to help students connect their language to their identity in a positive way


There can sometimes be a disconnect between families that speak one language at home and another within their education system. It can be uncomfortable for a child to use their home language in the classroom or embarrassing if they cannot remember an English word or phrase. As educators it is possible to bridge the gap from discomfort, conflict and embarrassment to celebration. Using some of the ideas above is just a start to helping students connect their language to their education. 

Continual confirmation of a students language and encouraging them to use their language or talk about experiences in a safe classroom place will continually help them affirm their identity. For bilingual children, language is a huge part of their culture and identity. Ensuring that all parts of students identity can be displayed within the classroom environment will only contribute to a students persistence and success over time. 


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