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Bicultural Identity: What Does That Mean?

By Jeffrey Nelson

Bicultural identity is the condition of being oneself regarding the combination of two cultures.

Having a bicultural identity is one of the special aspects about being bilingual or multilingual. It would be hard to define bilingual without speaking also to bicultural. When someone takes on another language, and spends any amount of time in that language on a regular basis, they inevitably develop and mold themselves as a person. A person starts to take on characteristics of the new language and culture which in turn combine with the old and create a new hybrid identity.

This process of the molding and remolding of bicultural identity is pretty remarkable. I have gone, and continue to go, through the process on a regular basis. It not only happens on a large scale, i.e. your entire personality, but on a smaller scale highlighted by the back-and-forth between the languages and the amount of exposure to each. Language, and identity to some degree, is on a continuum as opposed to being at two fixed points; a person who is more outgoing in the minority language, when spending a few weeks in that country or heavily immersed in that language, will inevitably start moving towards the more outgoing end of the continuum.

This happens on big scales, such as in the example above, and on many smaller scales that exist in day-to-day life. An interesting thing about biculturalism and bicultural identity is that it is constantly changing. As is with most things, it is never constant. As it is with language skill itself, it's either getting better or worse, more or less, left or right, or however you want to label it. You are either becoming more L1, or more L2. The middle doesn't exist anywhere except in theory.

This isn't a bad thing, in fact I would say it's a great thing. Life can be so mundane if nothing changes, and being in a bicultural relationship or some other influence that forces a bicultural identity on you is sometimes exactly what is needed to keep things interesting!

What does bicultural identity mean? It means that a person who is exposed to two cultures simultaneously is going to be on an ever-changing continuum with regards to their identity. Please don't misunderstand, this continuum isn't polarized; it's just slight changes that manifest themselves in subtle ways. It is more of a different shade of grey in each language when compared to the other rather than black versus white.

To define bilingual through bicultural identity is perhaps a good place to start. It is said that to truly understand a language you have to understand the culture. I always thought this was kind of silly until I lived it. You can understand a language with your head, but in order to put it deep in the depths of your understanding you need to eat, drink, breath, and feel it. You need to understand it without understanding it. Believe it or not, this is what we all do in our native language; just not intentionally. Therefore, it isn't as special.

About the writer

Jeffrey Nelson writes for LivingBilingual, where you can learn more about how many people are bilingual, and the benefits of being bilingual.

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