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Philosophy and Humanities

Linguistic Identity: Existential Crisis of Polylingual People

Arthur Michaud
Viktor Vladimirovich Vinogradov, Soviet linguist and philologist who presided over Soviet linguistics after World War II, pop-art illustration made by Arthur Michaud. 2022

Viktor Vladimirovich Vinogradov, Soviet linguist and philologist who presided over Soviet linguistics after World War II, pop-art illustration made by Arthur Michaud. 2022

In nowadays reality linguistic questions appear more seldom than usual. I observed that my Instagram feed was submerged with different posts concerning linguistic identity. The era of globalization, mass migration, provoked by the War in Ukraine, economic crisis all these factors increase drastically the level of migration, according to the EU’s migration poll. [1]

Subsequently, I was touched by this trend. I have a lot of friends from different countries and some of them use several language codes in their daily life. The least numerous group of my friends is polylingual. One week ago, we discussed what we think about the sociolinguistic point of the actual conflict. The situation is particularly interesting: the most frequently recalled question was “who am I and what is my mother tongue?”. On one hand, the answer is simple “a mother tongue is the language that you use in your everyday life” or “a mother tongue is a language that you use to think”. But what should you conceive if a person uses several languages to think and to communicate if this very person lives in two, three, or even four different linguistic realities? Who is he/she/they?

To answer this tricky eternal question, I will enlighten several concepts that I consider to be abstract and they need several levels of determination to be analyzed. Firstly, I am going to talk about linguistic identity itself and how it affects our lives, then, I would like to be precise about what is it like to be a polylingual person, after we are going to look at how migration changes the context of existence and the perception of reality. Finally, we are going to clash all these three parts of your cognition in the conflict of identity crises, we will see how the pluralism of assimilation could change each static universals into always changeable substance.

2. Linguistic identity

Arthur Michaud for article

Arthur Michaud for article

When I heard the expression of “Linguistic identity” for the first time I was really surprised. Primo, this term comprises ‘identity”, something that we have already heard about. Putting it simply, that’s the way we see the world, our relation to life, and the way to live it. Second, the linguistic part pushes us to suppose that it specifies the given concept by adding the image of language. However, this is not as simple as it could seem.

First of all, we need to understand that “identity” in language learning research is not a concept but a construct that is way more complex than an object because it takes part in social interaction, not only in perceiving reality. The language constructs a meta-person’s relationships across time, and space and changes the vision of a person’s identity and its vision of the future. The identity, at the same time, influences the language of a meta-person, by modifying lexical preferences, grammar, and syntax. They are linked and cannot exist one without another. [2]

To imagine this in a better way, try to draw a picture in your mind where the identity sphere has a language part inside and the language one has an identity part inside. Depending on a starting point of analysis, we can consider “identity” or “language” as a nucleus or a periphery, or form and content

This language duality was firstly described in “Cours de Linguistique Généralé” by Ferdinand de Saussure. Using the introspective approach, we can observe that “identity” and “language” do possess the nucleus and periphery sides. [3]

People generally tend to associate themselves with one or more social groups to perceive reality, and the way it works, and to make decisions. [4] The question of language identity was always crucial not only for linguists but also for politicians as a really strong construct that can form some sort of ideology based on different levels of culture, where the language itself makes a part. Depending on your language, your vocabulary in some spheres will differ drastically from others. For instance, In Japanese-speaking reality, there would be more words to describe senses, tastes, and colors. The reason for that is hidden in Japanese education, where the empiric and observational approaches are deeply integrated into the school system. [5]

The most cited example is the word umami which means a taste that describes as savory and is characterized by broths and cooked meats. Even if we could imagine this concept, several languages do not possess such a word for umami, which leads people to loan this word in their languages. That was a strict nucleus, the heart of a language, something that describes the reality of the world where a meta-person lives. As for the periphery, a language, forms to some extent, your vocabulary. If a language is fusional, or a language that uses a single morpheme to form new grammatical or semantic features, it is possible, that your language would be more open to new cultural codes, and terms and assimilate them in a faster way, comparing it with the analytic one.

As for the nucleus of the identity part, it helps you to choose the linguistic reality. If you consider yourself French, you could speak French, so you don’t have a dissonance in your world’s perception, you acquire the inherent logic of the language, e.g. tenses, word structure, phonetics, etc. The periphery part links to the culture. I have already mentioned that language is a part of a culture. It goes with the history of people speaking this language. We cannot forget about songs, movies, books, ideologies, and other important parts consisting of the cultural iceberg.

One identity differs from another, and by choosing one of them, several individuals could even change some physical features such as mimics, facial expressions, and furthermore. These two parts create the Linguistic identity, a strong social construct that leads people, it can be used as a manipulation instrument or even a weapon. Hence, I have explained the reality of a monolingual person which is a rare phenomenon in the world. Taking into consideration the fact, that the vast majority of people live in multiple linguistic realities, we should turn to bilingual people or even polylingual ones.

3. Who is a polylingual

Arthur Michaud for article

Arthur Michaud for article

The definition of this term was always problematic through the ages. Several specialists in different domains gave so many descriptions of this term that is it impossible to pick one that is suitable for each situation. I consider that we need to determine the limits of this notion before speaking about polylingual people. [6]

The vast majority of definitions differ depending on the “donor” of language. Here, I am talking about the person who transmits the language to the child. Even the motivation of the word “mother tongue” means that, in general, a child takes the language from its mother, and less frequently, from its father. Taking into the consideration increasing level of immigration and globalization, the situation, where each parent represents different language communities has become usual. This reality pushes language specialists to consider this fact, so the number of definitions concerning the ability to speak multiple languages is always increasing. [6]

In the aim to understand all the complexity of terminology in this field, I propose you imagine that there are several families: Family A, Family B, and Family C. We are going to study their cases, and after that, I propose you talk about the definition itself.

For each situation, we can enumerate external and internal factors that could be named as context. The external context is the language environment of the majority of the population placed in a given territory, while external ones are mostly conventional and depend on the parents. I have omitted several factors such as language status, like the situation with the Tatar language in Russia, to shorten my essay, which is slightly becoming a novel. Here, we are going to imagine the situation by putting it through some level of generalization. The way people perceive a language is way too complex to put into several words.

For instance, In Family A, parent 1 speaks French, while parent 2 speaks English, both of them are living in France, where the official language is French. Taking into consideration the internal factor, parent 1 and parent 2 can decide which strategy should they choose to communicate with. their child. There are three possibilities.

The French domination. Both parents speak French, but parent 2 does not speak English and a child would not be able to learn it, in the condition of both of them do not speak English. In the opposite situation, the child would be able to analyze the language, decorticate it, subconsciously, and learn English.

The English domination. Both parents speak English to the child, parent 1 does not speak French and the child would not be able to learn it with the same conditions.

The bilingual environment. Both parents use two languages in their communication, mixing them, or switching them with the child. The final result would give a certain level of fluency.

As for external factors, you remember, that all of them are living in France, so the child would be exposed, sooner or later to the French language outside of its household. In the case of French domination, the child would be a monolingual person, because she was not exposed to several language systems. In the case of English domination, the child would become a monolingual person too, however, its situation will be different. As the child lives in France, sooner or later, he would be exposed to French, and he would learn it at school with his friends and relatives. Furthermore, everything depends on a symbiosis of external and internal factors, we do not know if a child is going to pass more time with his parents or with his friends at school. In general, children tend to distance themselves from their parents, from the age of 10, and then, progressively, they would gain their fluency till the beginning of puberty.

And finally, the most interesting case, the bilingual domination, where a child would speak both French and English, hens, without a strict distinction between the two of them. However, with the age, the child would use more French in his life. If we imagine that it would use the same strategy as a child, raised in an English-dominated environment, it would be more fluent in French as well.

The situation with Family A shows us that a person cannot physically know two languages at the same level, because we cannot control their usage. One of them is going to be dominant.

If we switch the language in Family B, of Parent 1 into Russian, and would keep the language of Parent 2 as French by default, for example, there would be the same situation, however with little differences, as the language itself is far more distant from French on the level of structure, grammar, lexis, morphology, etc. The more the difference is significant, the more the situation changes.

To illustrate this, imagine child B is risen in a Russian-dominated environment, where Parent 1 and Parent 2 tend to speak Russian only, supposing that Parent 2 is fluent in Russian and possesses a C2 level certificate. In that case, while in Family A, English would not influence the French language of Child A on the level of pronunciation, because there is a native reference (a slite difference could be remarked on the level of prosody), in Family B, Russian would influence several lexical and their semantic structures because of a big number of loan words and expressions. For example, let us look at the expressions that are semantically close in both languages. They mean “Speak of the Devil”:

• “Вспомнишь Солнце — Вот и лучик/Vspomnish solntse vot i luchik”.

• «En parlant du loup».

These two expressions can mix and several parts of them could be mutated. In this situation, the child C could transform these sentences into:

• «Вспомнишь волка вот и он/Vspomnish volka vot I on», transposition and interference;

• «Кстати о волке/Kstati o volkie», a literate translation from French.;

• «En voyant une lueur», literate translation from French.

This situation changes with the begging of the academic experience. Child B would use more French expressions and would probably loan them in Russian.

In the French-dominated situation, there will not be any drastic differences from Family A. To be fair, according to my personal experience, I could tell, that several Russian expressions were loaned into my French language vocabulary.

In the bilingual situation, the level of modifications and linguistic experimentations in a child’s B brain is constantly growing with age till the end of puberty. The further situation depends on the symbiosis of factors that would help child B choose a dominant language.

Since the Economic crisis of 2008, there is another interesting tendency that could be illustrated by Family C. In this case, we use the same parameters as for Family A, P1 speaks French and P2 speaks English, one parameter that is changed is the external factor. Family C lives in Germany. In this case, child C enters into the three-dimensional linguistic reality, where the result would not be the same as for Families A and B. [1]

As was already told, there could be three possible scenarios, based on conventional relations between the P1 and P2 in Family C. In this situation, the external factor gives three additional scenarios: German dominated environment, Bilingual dominated environment with French and German, and three lingual-dominated environments. So, just to be precise and to better understand the situation, Family C could be:

• French-speaking;

• English speaking;

• Bilingual (Fr-En);

• German-speaking;

• Bilingual (Fr-De);

• Three lingual (Fr-En-De).

In all of the cases mentioned, child C would speak German, because of the German-speaking environment, especially with age, however, we need to take into consideration multiple varieties of socioeconomic factors such as the city’s population, its region, municipality area, scholar establishment, etc.

These factors are too numerous to illustrate each situation, however, it gives a perfect example of the complexity of the studying subject. As we have already seen, in several situations, a child could become a bilingual person and even in this, it would not be able to speak languages at the same level. Even if the difference is not drastically evident, one of the languages, one of the language would be dominant. [7]

The next important question, a bilingual person is complex and constructed, living in two linguistic dimensions, and different cultures, and sometimes, the child is exposed to more than two cultures. This tendency created a dilemma in the determination of a bilingual person.

I will not bother you with some further examples on this topic, but, an individual has an identity, the essence that is closely connected with his language and culture. Not all bilinguals in the world become bilinguals from the very beginning. They could be born into a monolingual family and then change their country of residence. In that case, they would not be able to stay nontransitional and they would become a bilingual person, taking into consideration the age of the person.

This occurs because a child will be integrated into the society of the majority’s language. His friends, teachers, neighbors everybody speaks another language. However, what should we call a person that starts to speak another language after puberty starts? The teenager’s new language would become its mother tongue in the condition it would acquire it by the age of 14-15 years old, till the end of the puberty period, because the way of perceiving the world will change. [8]

There are too many questions and particularities that are used to understand bilinguals. I must inform you that I need to use the generalizing approach to facilitate the comprehension of this interesting and never dying subject.

So, who Is polylingual? I gave you examples of people speaking two or three languages, and society calls them bilingual and trilingual people, however, there is a more general way to call this — multilingual or polylingual, or just polyglots.

According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of the term multilingual is the following: “speaking or using several different languages”. It is considered that it is more than one language. It is important to understand that in Europe the fact to speak several languages is no longer surprising. It highly depends on the economic center of the country and in rural areas, it is not considered a norm. If we are talking about enormous, large business centers such as Paris, Rome, Milano, London, Berlin, etc, globalization, international trade, and cultural openness has created an advantageous situation for the people living there.

In general, the vast majority of Europeans, more than half of its total population claim to speak several languages, hence, in practice their level is not homogeneous. Some individuals can write, some of them read, and third ones can read, write and understand several languages but they use only one of them.

It is understandable, taking into consideration the level of information we need to deal with in our life. People need to filter this information, and multiple languages' knowledge ability does not help it. Thanks to our brain, a fantastic machine that decides to optimize our way of thinking to economize power, it redirects the placement of these languages from the active area to the passive one.

Some children were able to acquire two languages natively from an early age, and they are called simultaneous bilinguals.

Knowing the constantly increasing number of terms describing bilingualism, I am going to use the term polylingual in my article. My choice is motivated by the will to call a situation of people that are the subject of my work. When I say a polylingual person, I mean a meta-person that was born in a multicultural context and speaks more than one language, from a very young age, on a daily bases. So this meta-person is living in a two-dimensional world.

When I say a multicultural context, I mean a meta-family, speaking two languages, and at least one of them is not the language of the majority living on the given territory.

We have discussed the linguistic identity of a person that comprises the cultural iceberg and world perception globally. In the case of polylingual people, they see the world divided by two, three, or more linguistic realities.

So, as you can see, multilingualism is a highly complex subject that is studied by multiple domains, however, because of its complexity, we can not consider a single situation suitable for all multilingual people. The generalization is necessary in that case.

4. Migration and linguistic identity

Arthur Michaud for article

Arthur Michaud for article

This ability could be seen as advantageous for polylingual as they are opened to new ways of seeing the world. Hence, we are speaking about the situation where they are living on a given territory and when a person leaves the territory, all the factors change.

I propose you talk about people that moved in their post-puberty age for humanitarian, economic, or political reasons.

In this situation, polylingual people enter a new linguistic reality. In general, bilingual and polylingual people tend to choose a country of one of their Level 1 languages e.g. if person A speaks both French and English, he or she lived in the USA, this person A could choose several French-speaking countries. The cultural descendants of one of the relatives help to determine the final choice. Let us suppose that this person’s mother was born in France or has a French heritage. In this case, person A would choose France for the settlement. [9]

We can also think that the assimilation process would be easier in this condition because the mother of person A transmitted not only the language but the French culture. That is true but to some extent. We do not know the exact amount of culture transmitted to the child if it could be possibly measured, and we do not know what were the conventional principles of his or her education, so I propose to you imagine that this person was raised in some kind of a mix of French and English culture. I am going to describe his or her life briefly, to analyze it better.

Paul Lapain is 32 years old, he was born in the city of New York, New York state in the mid-nineties, he lived with his French mother Monique et his American dad Peter in a small apartment in the Bronx where he went to a simple school and lived a simple double-culture life. At home, they used to speak both French and English. French was a lingua franca in their family, because Monique was a little bit ashamed of her accent, even if her husband, Peter, tried to persuade her that her pronunciation was good. They used English to talk about concepts that are purely American and related to the administrative sphere of life, migration lexis, etc.

Paul watched movies both in French and in English. Monique tried to choose the newest cartoons that were available, however, in the majority of cases, she preferred those she watched when she was little. She read books by French authors to Paul, so he could conserve her part of the culture. Do not think that Monique was open to different cultures, no, she was not as progressive as it might seem, she was not a cosmopolite and even if she lived in the USA she dreamed to move back to France.

When Paul graduated from school, Monique proposed to him to apply to a French university, because it was free and the higher education system is considered to be one of the most performant in the world. He did not hesitate for a lot of time and, after being accepted, he moved to France.

The first two weeks were full of joy and new experiences for Paul. He rediscovered the country of his mother. However, after these two weeks passed, he started to realize that he imagined things to be in another way. He tried to make some French friends, but the way they spoke was a bit different from that of his mother. There were more closed and distant. Small talks were not his strong part too. His new acquaintance from the university was choosing topics he was not so performant in, such as cuisine, and medieval culture.

Arthur Michaud for article

Arthur Michaud for article

Time passed. One year later, he made a great friendships with some of his university mates, he find an internship and everything seemed to be perfect for him, but, unfortunately, he felt lonely, and was not understanding much. New jokes, memes, and song artists, there was too much information to digest, and everything he learned differed from his mother’s perspective.

Do you see the problem? Exactly, Paul moved to France, bringing the culture of his mother’s youth, of the France of the 1980s. His brain is shocked by the number of changes and he started to feel the cultural choice. These two visions of the same country co-exist in his brain creating a dichotomy in the world’s perception.

His education plays a big role too, but the fact of being conserved in some kind of a time capsule perturbates him. In this very particular case we can see, that even if a language identity was already formed, we cannot say it was a universals, something that is not changeable. Arriving in France, he was forced by the will of integration into society to learn some new cultural and linguistic codes. This forms a new linguistic identity.

It could seem evident that in this case, we are talking about a new linguistics identity, what if it is not new, but a changeable one?

This kind of identity is a social construct that is considered externally as a stable, consistent thing, comprising a lot of different branches of our life. Even Paul considers himself as a strict point, a substance that is not changed. We could agree with his point of view, but there is a thing, he does not analyzes his status, he prefers to confront a conflict and to stay with what he already has.

We observe him, as a human being, and we see that he uses terms, and definitions, he tried to understand who he is and what or whom he would like to become. But who is he? Is he American? Is he French? Maybe both?

On one hand, there is a simple answer to that. He has an American passport, so he is American. But he speaks French, his mother is French and he decided to move to France. So who is he? What is that being American or being French?

According to Napoleon Bonaparte’s law on immigration, being French means speaking French, sharing the Republic’s values, and being catholic. This concept has changed with time, and Catholicism was replaced by laïcité or secularism, to put it simply. But is it enough to be conformed to these three simple rules to become, or to be French?

This principle was and is today debatable. The jus soli and jus sanguinis are the main points of all political discussions on TV, on the radio, and in the newspapers. France is a multicultural country with a long history of immigration and this social construct of being French is also changing to something more open and inclusive.

It was the administrative part, something that we could place into the brackets, something that is describable. But what about Paul? Does he need a passport to be considered French? Can he become French? And what is it “becoming French”?

In his had there are two worlds, two perspectives to understand and to make decisions, he tries to choose the variant that he considers to be more “right”, and “socially acceptable”. He lives in a society, where everyone speaks French and thinks French. I would like to emphasize this part. Everybody thinks French. It means that a language is a code that we use to give labels to things of non-linguistic reality. So, people who speak several languages can understand the world in different ways. That is the dilemma. He is both American and French, but too American to be called French, and too French to be called American.

He is called like this by society, by his friends and family, and, as you have certainly remarked, they use adjectives. I adore this part of the discourse because adjectives are subjective, they describe things that we see, based on our experience, taste, and mother tongue.

For instance, think of a noise. There are a lot of cars, and business people walking, they speak loudly, and everything is loud. That’s it! They speak loudly. That is how an English speaker would say it. But would a French say it like this? No, a French would say “ce bruit il est trop fort”, “le bruit est fort”. In the French language, a noise could be strong and not loud. But we see the same thing, we understand the same thing. Is it so the same? We code it differently and you can see the difference in the world’s perception.

The substantives “American” and “French” could be easily transformed into adjectives, if we transpose them into another grammatical class, they will be still the same words with the same characteristics, but the semantics would change. They are not objective anymore. They passed from the static substance to the non-static one.

Now we can choose the level of Frenchness that we would like or Americanness. So, these two non-constant characteristics need to be applied, to see, if could they be changeable or not, helping our poor Paul to find his identity. To do that, let us do the permutation.

• Paul is (American) and he is (French).

• Paul is X and he is X.

You can put every adjective that you would like to, starting with good, bad, nice, sportive, and beautiful, try it by yourself. The more you permutate the X, the more you feel the subjectiveness of these terms. for example:

• Paul is (good) and he is (nice).

To what extent is Paul good? Is he the best person that you have ever met? Or on the planet. Or he is better than your friend, or your teacher. We do not know. We need a certain point to compare it with the actual Paul at this moment in time. I emphasize this moment because he could become better or worst, or something could become better than Paul or visa-versa. Some concepts could go away from the discourse, and we need to fix all the parameters to make a decision.

Then, change your adjectives to American and French. Do you feel the difference? The same questions. To what extent is Paul American? Is he more American than his friend? What are the criteria to determine the level of Americanness? And so forth.

The subjectiveness opens Paul to the reality that everything is changeable, everything is moving in time and space, because, new subjects create new terms and new characteristics. They enter the world of perception and their Americanness or Frenchness can be compared with him, or with others.

Being American or French is an essence, something determined, something objective but the way of living your life to become one is existence, something that you live not only in society but with yourself too, with your thoughts, feelings, and fears. One sort of action will make you more American, and others do not.

If we return to Paul, at this time and space, he lives with the vision of an American who would like to become French, to connect himself to his mother’s culture. He lives in another country by himself and all alone, so he searches for a social group to be associated with. We remember that his mother is conservative this reflects in her vision of the world, where everything is predetermined. Monique gave to Paul Aristotle’s vision of things — static and predetermined. You are American, or you are French.

Paul thinks that his essence precedes existence which is the source of the internal conflict. He has a real existential crisis, everything that he loved and cared about so much is falling apart and he does not know what to grab to be saved. But this is a part of assimilation that is also a complex subject that I will cover in the next article.

Paul’s identity is based on his linguistic identity which comprises culture, history, stereotypes, and a whole world of vision. The problem of polylingual people is that they cannot find their way in the world, because they always have two roads, three, and sometimes even more. Language is not always just a bunch of grammar structures, it is the logic, the way a group of people decided to understand the world we live in. Two identities, two problems, two sufferings. In this case, I could only propose Paul remember Spinoza’s and Simone Weil’s advice: suffering is important to save your dignity.

“Too American to be called French and too French to be called American.”


1. « Statistics on Migration to Europe ». European Commission — European Commission, Consulté le 20 octobre 2022.

2. Norton, Bonny. Identity and language learning: extending the conversation. Second Edition, Multilingual Matters, 2013.

3. Saussure, Ferdinand de. Cours de linguistique générale. Payot, 1995.

4. Firth, Alan, et Johannes Wagner. « On Discourse, Communication, and (Some) Fundamental Concepts in SLA Research ». The Modern Language Journal, vol. 81, no3, septembre 1997, p. 285 300. (Crossref),

5. Sugimoto, Yoshio, éditeur. The Cambridge companion to modern Japanese culture. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

6. Romanowski, Piotr, et Małgorzata Jedynak, éditeurs. Current Research in Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. Springer International Publishing, 2018. (Crossref),

7. Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Rev. and Extended ed, Verso, 1991.

8. Taeschner, Traute. The Sun Is Feminine: A Study on Language Acquisition in Bilingual Children. Springer, 1983.

9. Peirce, Bonny Norton. « Social Identity, Investment, and Language Learning ». TESOL Quarterly, vol. 29, no 1, 1995, p. 9. (Crossref),

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