Language and Identity


I started using English when I was four. My parents decided to move to Boston, and consequently, I began to attend an American kindergarten. Because I couldn’t speak any English at that point, I never really understood what was going on around me. I distinctively remember the first day of school, when I found myself staring into the eyes of a boy who had jet-black hair and dark brown eyes. He looks just like me! That must mean he’s Japanese! However, when I enthusiastically invited him to play with me in Japanese (「一緒に遊ぼう!」), he stared at me before shaking his head and walking away. That was a blow to my self-confidence; at the tender age of four, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to play with me. It quickly became evident that in my new surroundings, learning English was a complete necessity.

The truth is, I’ve never felt confident in either English or Japanese. When I’m with Japanese people, I feel inadequate in my ability to speak their language. While day-to-day conversations don’t make me as anxious, in formal situations such as job interviews, I worry that they’re catching all my grammar or word usage mistakes and are marking me down as being stupid. Attending Japanese school was especially hard for me, as my teachers and classmates couldn’t accept me for being “different” while looking Japanese. During such times, I would use my ‘fluent’ English ability as an excuse for my lack of Japanese, making the situation worse when my English teachers proceeded to use me as a human CD player during classes.

On the other hand, when I’m in the U.S. or Canada, I rely on the fact that I’m Japanese – on the stereotype that we are generally incapable of speaking English. Compared to everyone else, my English is passable, but not perfect, so I struggle to speak up in class or in groups of native speakers. I know I speak English to a proficient enough level that when I do make errors, they stand out more, and there have been humiliating moments when my friends would laugh at those mistakes. I feel the most confident when I’m with my bilingual English-Japanese friends, because I know that they speak and understand the hybrid language that I speak, the mix of Japanese and English that generally sounds like, “Kyoune (Today), I had class dakedo (but) I took a nap dakara (so) I missed it.” My bilingual friends, mostly from other international schools, will understand this perfectly. As for my other friends and my parents? They would probably just stare at me, if not lecture me on the importance of sticking to one language when I speak.

I probably communicate better in English in all forms (writing, reading, speaking, listening), but Japanese is part of who I am. I want to use Japanese as perfectly as my Japanese counterparts, but I probably will never be able to reach native level in all four forms. I feel the most satisfied when I can share about my Japanese background while in Canada, or when I can share about my Western upbringing in Japan. For my Master’s thesis, I want my work to reflect the bridge between my two identities. In one of my favorite articles of all time, Jim Cummins urges teachers to respect their students’ multicultural backgrounds and use the variety of knowledge in the classroom to help their students reach full potential, a form of identity investment. As time goes on and bilingualism, even multilingualism, becomes a norm, I hope for a day when teachers embrace the notion of identity investment in the classroom, so that everyone can reach their full potential in all their language identities… even in Japan.


Cummins, J., Bismilla, V., Chow, P., Cohen, S., Giampapa, F., Leoni, L., … Sastri, P. (2005). Affirming identity in multilingual classrooms. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 38-43. Retrieved from

8 thoughts on “Language and Identity”

  1. Hina-chan,
    You know I understand your frustrations! Seriously, I think your English is better than mine and I know your Japanese is! I appreciated all that you said in your blog. I totally agree with you.
    Actually I totally appreciate being multicultural. I believe it to be a great benefit even though at times it’s frustrating. I feel it gives a greater depth of character and a greater adaptability to new situations.
    I’m proud of the woman you have become!


  2. Hello, Hina!

    Thank you for sharing your story!

    While reading your dilemma of altering between identities, I received a quite strong feeling. Honestly, I’m very glad to hear that you’re currently enjoying being here as you can present yourself uniquely in either way. You finally found a way out, but lots of people who have encountered the same problem are still struggling.

    Your story reminds me of my younger cousin. He moved to Japan at 3 years old and finished his grade 3 in Tokyo. After that, he came back to China. 5 years later, once he finished his grade 9 in Beijing, he moved to South Carolina in the U.S. for high school. This fall, he started his new journey in Barcelona, Spain. Strikingly, each of the place he lived has its own language. My family worried terribly if he can adapt to a new environment. However, while kept moving, he gradually developed somehow a special way to interpret the world. That is to say, he is able to show a creative understanding towards daily events, and he obtained an amazing intuition, which allows him to reach something so deep that I cannot see. That’s the gift he got after being tortured for 20 years by forming, deforming and reforming his intertwisted identity. I’m sure you also got some gifts from the struggling.

    I have not yet got a chance to talk with you in person, but I noticed a few times in class, you shared your opinions on certain topics. Your point of view is very interesting as you grew up in different places, especially Japan and U.S. , and each of them represents a typical culture type in the world. You have gained a unique gift in connecting events together. In other words, shifting identity provides you such a great chance to combine different ways of thinking critically.

    For myself, even if I grew up in China without moving to other countries, I still felt strong culture shocks and challenges when I started my study abroad. Same as you did, I perceived that my English cannot fully present who I am and the way I am, which led to lacking of confidence, even sometimes a shameful feeling of my linguistical inability. At first, I saw this negatively. However, a few months later, I realized I should take it naturally. Because the languages change and identities shift make us a full person, in the way that it spontaneously generates our particular way of thinking since we have two, or even more ideologies in mind. This, eventually, allows us to see the world in multiple ways.

    Xiaoke #Comment 3


  3. Hi Hina,
    Thanks for sharing you experience and I really appreciate the notion of identity investment!And when facing increasing varieties of students,teachers need to adapt their pedagogy and more importantly,their awareness and attitudes towards students with multicultural backgrounds.

    Yuting zhao


  4. Hi Hina,

    You experience really strikes a chord with me. Actually I really don’t know why teachers and peers with one cultural background always treat students with multicultural backgrounds differently. But I really appreciate the notion of identity investment and think teachers need to adapt their pedagogy and more importantly, their awareness to students from two or more cultural origins.

    Yuting Zhao


  5. Hi Hina,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I still remember how shocked I am when I learned that you can speak Japanese, English and Hungarian at Mela’s class. The only thing popped up in my mind is that ” She is so COOL!”. The struggles you have been experiencing is something that I have never thought of. Using the hybrid to communicate you described also occurs among we Chinese too. Sometimes we tried to talk to each other in English to improve our fluency, but there is always a moment that we felt there is no such an exact corresponding word that can express the emotion or meaning behind a certain Chinese phrase. Thus, we switch back to Chinese, and there is little chance that we would change it back to English once we started speaking Chinese……

    I will definitely look into the paper you mentioned. I am looking forward to reading your thesis too!



  6. Hey Hina,

    What an amazing and fascinating story of your language identity. But you know I was stunned when you mentioned that you don’t have enough proficiency in Japanese. Why? I couldn’t believe it! So, I kept reading your post until the very end, and based on what you mentioned, I realized that you might have had more exposure to English than Japanese. Hmm, let me count: you were four years old when you started learning English, yet you kept using Japanese at home. So, with your parents you had to speak Japanese, whereas with your kindergarten or school friends you communicated in English, didn’t you?

    As an ESL teacher, I’m just curious to know a little bit more information about your English and Japanese learning experience. Maybe, we could go for coffee later on, and discuss the issue. In a nutshell, I would like to go back to this peculiar topic.
    Natalie L.


  7. Hi, Hina:
    Thank you so much for your sharing. First of all, I think your English is very good and I am sure your Japanese will be perfect, too. The reason you have this inferior feeling of speaking English in native English countries and speaking Japanese in Japan, I think is because you can use both of these two languages at a pretty proficient level while at the same time, you are not pure native English or Japanese speaker. This caused more anxiety just like Lauren mentioned in her study. I have the same language anxiety, to be honest. Before I came to Canada, I have been speaking English almost 8 hours a day because of my work, everyone thought my English is pretty good compared to ordinary Chinese people, I am also very confident in my English ability. But the first day when I arrived at McGill, I found out everyone I met spoke English perfectly and confidently. I was so frustrated and so ashamed to speak out in front of the whole class. I am so afraid that people will not understand me. But I think, we just need to keep trying, the more you speak in front of the class, the more confident we will become, then a positive circle will form and develop. As for your thesis topic, I think it’s fantastic because it’s not only you who have this experience, your paper will help a bunch of researchers to dig into the issue and the people who are suffering as you. And the education now days do need to develop programs which can confirm and protect the students’ identity. That will be a huge and significant thing to do even though it will not be so easy. We will need time and patience to try again and again but I am sure we will get there one day, one pedagogy that will educate a multicultural class the discipline as planned while respecting and protecting every student’s identity. Let’s be hopeful.


  8. Hi Hina,

    Thank you for sharing pieces of little stories about your language growth. It’s fascinating. I’ve been long curious about what it is like for people growing up in two totally different language backgrounds. It’s always good to see more and experience more in any period of a person’s life, so it’s truly a gift to grow up in many different places of the world, I think. Besides, the concept of “identity investment” is fresh to me and I totally agree. Language is an activity, not an object. It happens in real world, not just in head. So language classroom really should show more care about the subjects who is learning a language rather than the language itself. As is proposed by Levine, developing a multilingual classroom community of practice could be a way to cope with the imbalance between the monolingual norms in class and the multilingual realities in real world.



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