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The Role of Identity and Language. How do the two constructs play together?

An explorative empirical Study

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2016 35 Seiten

Anglistik - Kultur und Landeskunde


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Definitions and Background Knowledge
2.1 Identity
2.2 Language
2.2.1 Monolingualism, Bilingualism and Multilingualism

3. The Survey
3.1 Research Question
3.2 Hypotheses
3.3 Experiment methodology
3.3.1 Design
3.3.2 Recruitment
3.3.3 Participants
3.4 Analysis of results
3.4.1 Pearson Correlation
3.4.2 T-test
3.5 Evaluation of the results

4. Limitation & Discussion

5. Scientific and linguistic implications

6. Conclusion

7. References

8. Selbstständigkeitserlärung

9. Appendices
9.1 Literature Review
9.2 Tables
9.3 List of Figures
9.4 Coding key


Considering the fact that, according to the Enthologue catalogue, there exist 7097 known living languages, but only 196 countries in the world, it is intelligible to presume that people do generally speak more than one language (Lewis, 2016, Chrystal, 2007). Literature often discusses the

phenomenon of differences in individuals’ behaviour in native and foreign tongues. It is believed that our childhood languages vibrate with greater emotional intensity than do those learned in more academic settings, which is reflected in our thoughts and actions (Sedivy, 2016). Do the languages we speak shape the way we see the world, the way we think, and the way we live our lives. This paper aims to answer this question and how and if language and identity correlate by investigating the relationship with the help of a theoretical approaches as well as the practical implementation through a survey.

Laut dem ethnologischen Katalog existieren derzeit 7097 lebende Sprachen. Wenn man bedenkt, dass es nur 196 Länder gibt, liegt die Vermutung nicht fern, dass der Mensch an sich mehr als eine Sprache beherrscht (Lewis, 2016, Chrystal, 2007). In der Literatur wird das Phänomen unterschiedlicher Verhaltensmuster in Mutter- und Fremdsprachen häufig diskutiert. Es wird angenommen, dass die Sprache unserer Kindheit uns emotional mehr bewegt als die- jenigen Sprachen die in einer formellen Weise erlernt wurden. Diese Emotionen spiegeln sich in unseren Gedanken und Handlungen wieder. Doch beeinflussen die Sprachen die wir sprechen tatsächlich unsere Ansichten, unser Denken und unseren Lebensstil? Diese Studie versucht diese Frage zu beantworten, als auch zu klären ob und wie Sprachen und Identität zueinander in Verbindung stehen. Dabei wurden sowohl literarische, theoretische Konstrukte als auch das praktische Implementieren durch eine Onlineumfrage zur Hilfe gezogen.

Key words

Identity, Language, Language Proficiency, Bilingualism

1. Introduction

No thought without language, no identity without words. - This is a strong statement and it truly is hard to imagine a world without languages. People would not be able to communicate. Not with other individuals nor with themselves. Language enables humans to give their thoughts a certain substance in order to convey them. The way we talk shows others who we are and language is in some way who we are since its use defines us humans directly as well as indirectly. Our word choice, our pronunciation, the language style we use- this are all indicators in which way we perceive our personal and social affiliation. This happens partly unconsciously and arbitrarily. Language is often said to be the mirror of human mind, culture and tradition such as by Chomsky in Evans work: “Thus language is a mirror of mind in a deep and signifi- cant sense. It is a product of human intelligence, created anew in each individual by operations that lie far beyond the reach of will of consciousness” (Evans, D., 2015, pg.26). The connection between identity and language is a central element of the individual’s experience of being hu- man. It reflects the human’s identity and their place in the society. Various researchers have been analysing people’s choices of language and the ways of speaking do not only allow them to reflect who they are but also to make themselves. Considering the fact that there exist around 6000 different languages, but only 196 countries in the world, it is intelligible to presume that people do generally speak more than one language (Crystal, 2007). In fact, “over half of the world's population is thought to be bi- or multilingual” (Albrecht, 2006, pg. 19). If a language reflects a person’s identity does it mean that bi- or multilingual individuals have various iden- tities? It is claimed by many linguists that bi- or multilinguals would be a “different person” in each of their languages. Indeed, the conception individuals hold numerous identities has come to be broadly accepted among researchers of different fields such as linguistic anthropologists, sociolinguists and psychologists (Koven, 2007).

This paper aims to answer those questions thoroughly by investigating the relationship between language and identity with the help of a theoretical approaches as well as the practical implementation through a survey. After defining the concepts of language and identity given in a general overview, follows the description of the survey conduction with a presentation of the research questions. In the survey 118 persons from various countries were asked to fill out an extensive online questionnaire which addresses the participants’ heritage, commanded languages and certain identity concepts. It was partly tried to receive information about a persons’ identity and personality by asking indirect questions in order to trigger a subconscious answering which is a coarse approximation to the participants’ identity. In the end, the data sets were analysed statistically and compared in order to give a comprehensive overview on people’s thoughts and identity traits regarding the importance to language.

2. Definitions and Background Knowledge

If we want to investigate the relationship between language and identity, the terms them- selves have to be specified and defined in the first place. Without background information, a survey cannot be conducted nor analysed. Therefore, some basic concepts, illustrations and definitions which will be connected to the survey at a later point, will be outlined in the follow- ing.

2.1 Identity

Identity is something humans are constantly building and negotiating all their lives through interaction with others. But what exactly is identity? Etymologically, the word comes from Latin “idem” meaning “same” but, in fact, identity is basically about establishing differ- ences between individuals (Potowski, K., Rothman, J., 2011). Identities are linguistically and socially built, however, it is understood that one’s identity is singular and unique. Identity has many layers and has therefore to be viewed from different angles. Its components are personal, cultural, societal as well as relational. It displays a central role to all humans as at some point in life people become concerned with how to understand themselves and compre- hend the relationships between oneself and others as well as to understand others as distinct humans. Some characteristics of the identity definition are that people sense they are belonging to one or various groups, they notice that there are certain aspects they have in common with other people in these communities, but also recognize the differences. In this way, an individual can find his or her own location in social affairs which appears as the steady core of the person’s individuality. Finkbeiner’s Human GPS approach (2009) responds to the human’s individual locating and claims that in order for a human to be able to locate oneself, he or she has to communicate with at least three ‘satellites’ which all are positioned differently. Individuals need to be able to perceive and transform information of different perspectives which are dis- played in those satellites. They consist of one’s heritage language(s), target language(s) and instructional language(s) and end up in a multilingual person. The provided data needs to be processed which implies that humans have to “develop language and cultural awareness” (Fink- beiner, 2009). This is how people become aware of oneselves as well as of others. “At the most basic level, identity emerges in discourse through the temporary roles and orientations assumed by participants. Those roles contribute to the formation of subjectivity and intersubjectivity in discourse. Roles in conversations create subject in discourse” (Buchholtz, M., Hall,K.,2004, pg. 20). Therefore, identities are never completely independent. There is always a relation to other available identities. It can, hence, be said that identity defines itself through other identi- ties.

Individuals have various different roles to fulfil with regard to others such as a friend, boss, child, parent, etc. and those roles describe our identity shifts according to the context of who it is we are with. Those roles, however, might pressure the individual since she or he is forced to ‘play’ the role the society expects. Humans are convivial beings and they need to be part of a group which gives them security and identity. Members of the group are likely to adjust their thoughts within the group’s norm and disrespecting societal rules might lead to a social marginalisation of the individual in the group which is the foundation of social identity. This can happen by not following the values of a society which can include the language the community speaks. The language community is an eminent influencer of values, attitudes and social as well as personal identity. Groups, typically teenagers, often employ a different lan- guage. They use expressions that will not be understood by their parents in order to mark their difference. “It had a perverse effect though: it is that some dialects or accents might lead people to classify their interlocutors into categories based solely on the language or the accent. It is here that stereotypes meet language” (Chassy, P., 2014, pg. 47). Language is a marker of iden- tity and also contributes to shape our social perception of the self and others.

Personal identities, however, are the individual’s conceptions of themselves and cap- tures who an individual believes he or she is. The person reflects who she or he is for her- or himself and who for others. Joseph’s (2004) opinion about the relationship of identity and language is that identity must be based on some kind of common experience. He explains that this “is why linguistic identity must begin with what in common usage is the primary meaning of identity: the name. Identity is at root a matter of language.” In his view, the fundament of personal identity are names which are “occupying a privileged place within the language. There is a particular part of grammar reserved for names” (Joseph, 2004, pg.11). Each human has a name and this is a crucial part of one’s personality and identity from the very beginning of everyone’s life. As Llamas explains in her work, “language mediated attribution of identity to individuals is so ingrained in human social affairs that we consider a person lacking a name also to lack identity” (Llamas, 2010, pg.9). People can be self-referential, refer to each other and they can separate themselves from others through their own name.

Also, Finkbeiner’s GPS approach can be used to describe this phenomenon of finding oneself firstly: The Human GPS has its starting point within the self. Before we can start the navigation, we have to locate the self. Therefore, the most important focus is on the perception of the self” (Finkbeiner, 2009, pg. 155).

2.2 Language

Identities are symbolized through language and languages are used to indicate identities by those who speak them. Also, it is used by people to categorize other people according to the language they speak. Language displays an essential part of life for nearly every person in the world. It is a crucial way in which humans express their feelings. It is a uniquely human gift, central to the experience of being human. It is necessary in order to communicate and is ex- traordinarily important for each individual. It starts as soon as being an infant. “[They] hear language while they are still in the womb, and their first years are spent absorbing lan- guage. The words of an individual’s language represent the cultural beliefs and ideas of the group to which he or she belongs” (Barry, 2014). Therefore, is an individual’s native language closely tied to his or her sense of personal identity. Language is inevitable for the personal development. People negotiate their personality with others through language and, hence, it can be assumed that all languages would need to sound more or less the same if communication were the only purpose of languages (Llamas, Watt, 2010). Joseph’s (2004) opinion about iden- tity and language is that identity must be grounded in common experience. That is why lin- guistic identity must begin with what in common usage is the primary meaning of identity: the name. Identity is at root a matter of language. Names are the primary text of personal identity, occupying a privileged place within the language. There is a particular part of grammar reserved for names only.

2.2.1 Monolingualism, Bilingualism and Multilingualism

In order to comprehend language, its processing and the relationship to identity, it is important to understand what the language acquisition process implies and what the character- istics of bi-or multilingual individuals in comparison to monolinguals are. Language acquisition and the development of languages are very diverse and profoundly investigated fields of lin- guistics, which consider various aspects such in which way the bilingual perception and pro- duction work in contrast to monolingual individuals. Many factors influence an individual and, hence, a definition of what bilingualism actually is, alters among different groups depending on the focus of research. In a narrow view, it can be seen as the ability of using two languages at the highest levels which implies being equally or nearly equally fluent in it. Since some individuals have a differing degree of competence in the languages, a wider definition of bilin- gualism is stated. It is the ability to communicate in two different languages without defining the degree of proficiency in each language and comparing it (Deuchar & Quay, 2006; Altharriba & Heredia, 2008; Martin, 2012). Due to those varying and heterogeneous points of views, bi- lingualism can be seen as a continuum. At one end, having bilingualism described in a very narrow way, such as a ‘native-like control of two languages’ and on the other end considering bilingualism as ‘minimal competence in the use of any skill of a second language’ (Albrecht, 2006, pg. 19). Interestingly, the official definition of ‘bilingual’ in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary is to be “able to speak two languages equally well” or the ability of “using two languages” (Hornby, 2010, pg. 136). The amount of exposure to a language differs highly depending on the personal background, but also on the geographical situation.

It may be difficult to compare the proficiency of command in all domains of a language to the other one, since one individual might possess a very high proficiency in both languages on the orthographic, comprehensive and discourse levels, whereas, others might display varying proficiencies in those areas depending on the kind and amount of exposure to the specific lan- guages. Hornby's view (1977) of bilingualism being not an “all-or-none property”, but rather “an individual characteristic that may exist to degrees varying from minimal competency to complete mastery of more than one language”, might be the most sufficient and convenient kind of the bilingual concept for the purpose of this work (Hornby, 1977, pg.3). In other words, bi- or multilingualism is the presence of two or more languages within the same speaker but the competences in both languages might or might not be equal. The language proficiency might be a big influencer of how a person feels about and in a certain language. A person who is bilingual, however, is not one person consisting of two monolinguals because the languages correlate and the ‘identities’ cannot be separated clearly (Fabbro, F., 1999; Martin, B., 2012; Herdina,P. & Jessner, U., 2002). That might be a reason why bi- or multilingual people are switching codes in discourse. This paper and survey will try to investigate to which degree this statement might or might not be true in respect to the individuals’ identities.

3. The Survey

3.1 Research Question

How do the two constructs of identity and language play together?

3.2 Hypotheses

H1-There is a relation between language switching and proficiency.

H2- There is a relation between language proficiency and identity.

3.3 Experiment methodology

This study is an online survey conducted on the platform Survio. The questionnaire consists of 53 questions and the initial sample consisted of 118 participants. The answering of all questions required 10 - 15 minutes and the questionnaire was active for 11 days. Some of the questions have been discarded because they were not relevant for the final interpretation of the results. Participants were adequate if they commanded at least two languages on a proficient or bilingual level. It is necessary to have such a restriction in order to receive feasible results on the research question whether there is some kind of connection between languages and iden- tities or not. If one language represented one “identity”, a comparative value for the second “identity” is required. Such a comparative value would be a second language. However, if a person does command a language on a proficient level, it is likely that he or she is not aware of the interaction of their lives and the commanded languages. Consequently, some participants have been discarded.

3.3.1 Design

The questionnaire design is a combination of various methods, such as single - choice and multiple - choice questions, interval scales as well as free - text responses. The data collection was directly saved by the platform Survio and after completion of the field phase the data was processed, firstly, in Excel and then in the statistics software SPSS 20. During the processing phase the data was cleansed in order to extract defective and incomplete data sets. Due to the incompleteness of some answers by some of the participants, only 69 out of 118 could be used. The contributing factors will be discussed later in more detail.

3.3.2 Recruitment

The recruitment took place using different means: A large part of the subjects was contacted via the authors’ private network and postings in university groups on Facebook. Personal connections also played a role in the recruitment. All participants volunteered and did not receive any compensation.

3.3.3 Participants

The net sample encompasses n = 69 participants. The arithmetic mean for the participant’s age is m = 25,8 years for the entire group, with the minimum being 15 years and the maximum being at the age of 69 years. The participants’ genders were not equally distributed with 43 women and 26 men. It was not possible reach an equal distribution as women were more willing to participate in the study.


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Table 1- Gender distribution

The nationalities, however, are very diverse, as can be seen in Table 2. It was tried to recruit a

versatile database regarding the nationalities of the participants. Various nationalities are rep- resented in the survey. However, Germans depict the largest part with 52,3 percent. This is a consequence of the fact that most of the participants were personal contacts of the German author.


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Table 2 - Distribution of nationalities

The most common degrees of education are A-levels (20 people), undergraduate studies (22) and graduate studies (17). There are only 7 persons which have no higher degree than high school but most of those participants are too young to have a higher degree. 43 of the partici- pants are students, 19 are employed, 3 participants are unemployed, and 4 are self-employed.

Degree of Education

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Table 3 - Degrees of Education

German is he most frequently occurring mother tongue (29), followed by English (6), Spanish (6) and Serbo-Croatian (5). An extensive overview is given in table 4 in the appendix.

Even though 118 participants were recruited, only 69 questionnaires delivered feasible results since the others did not meet the requirements. This can be explained by the fact that not all participants had an adequate proficiency in their foreign languages and hence their results were not suitable for the purpose of this survey. The criteria for selecting the subjects were that eli- gible candidates commanded at least one language on a at least professional proficiency and have the ability of code-switching. The affected participants who were excluded had no or only a basic knowledge in their foreign language(s) which is not sufficient enough for a deeper un- derstanding of the connection of language and identity. Due to the high ratio of German partic- ipants, a relative large exclusion of those candidates was likely. Furthermore, some of the ques- tionnaires were answered incompletely or erroneously which lead to the relatively high exclu- sion of participants.

3.4 Analysis of results

In the following section, the test results about the question how language and identity play together are presented. Firstly, the measuring instruments of the sample will be reviewed in order to hold satisfying distributional parameters and reliabilities.

3.4.1 Pearson Correlation

The interdependence hypothesis for the correlation examination between a person’s language proficiency and his or her identity was calculated via the Pearson Correlation. Pearson’s correlation coefficient r is the mostly used nonparametric measure of association for two random variables. It is an instrument to measure the strength and direction of a linear association between two variables (Wang, 2012). A Pearson correlation attempts to draw a line of best fit through the data of two variables with values ranging from 0 to 1 in absolute. A correlation has a strong effect if r < 0,5, a medium correlation if r < 0,3 and a weak effect if r is > 0,2 (Cohen, 1988) and can be calculated with the following formula:



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Institution / Hochschule
Universität Kassel – Fremdsprachenlehr- und -lernforschung
Identity Language Bilingualism Language Proficiency




Titel: The Role of Identity and Language. How do the two constructs play together?