Language, Culture, and Identity Issues: Challenges and Changes in Mixed Roots and Multicultural Families

Mixed family 


Identity is something that many if not most all of us wrestle with whilst growing up. However, like most minorities, this is perhaps even more so for many mixed roots, multicultural and third culture kids; from dealing with being treated differently by others and searching for groups to identify with, and feel a sense of belonging, to learning multiple languages and cultures. As previously mentioned, language and culture are integral parts of our identity, and kids who have or develop positive attitudes and feelings towards all aspects of their identity tend to be better adjusted and happier. However, as parents, how can we help our kids to deal with the inevitable bumps along the way?


Whether in print, downloaded or read online (e.g. Dino Lingo Books), stories, especially traditional ones, span generations, keep culture alive and help children to connect with their roots, even when living outside that community. In an increasingly globalised world, it’s also wonderful to be able to read stories from cultures that aren’t our own, but may help our children connect and understand friends in an increasingly number of internationalized classrooms (see the Culture and Diversity selection, for example). Many books also help children to address the challenges they may face, from being the odd one out and bullied to being the new kid at school.


Furthermore, for parents these days, there are numerous helpful starting points to deal with issues of language, culture, and identity as they arise, from books and blogs to communities that meet face-to-face and/or on social media. They share a wealth of invaluable information and support at local, regional, and international levels. Here are three, all by people sharing from firsthand experience in order to help others:


Multilingual living  is the home of Multilingual Living Magazine, a popular digital publication dedicated to families raising bilingual and multilingual children. It’s a place to “… find inspiration, tools, advice, wisdom and support!” There is a host of helpful articles, including ones written by guest experts, and questions sent in from readers, on issues ranging from top 10 things parents should never say to their bilingual/multilingual child to top 10 reasons your children aren’t speaking your language and what to do when you’re feeling left out of the conversation and isolated.


Bilingual Monkeys offers “ideas and inspiration for raising bilingual kids (without going bananas)” with a weekly newsletter, resources for parents including ‘fun stuff’, a blog and collection of articles covering topics like 96 Things You Can Do Today to Boost Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and the tongue-in-cheek How to Fail Miserably at Raising a Bilingual Child.


Multilingual parenting has a weekly newsletter, blog, community and coaching. The Q&A archive includes a wide range of topics from what to do if your child’s teacher tells you to stop speaking a family language to several posts addressing how to raise kids with three or more languages. Searching the site for the topic of identity, you can find a number of posts that support the acceptance and development of our multilingual and multicultural selves, and Rita Rosenback, when writing about Many Languages One Identity, asserts:

“All my languages are an intrinsic part of my identity. Every single one of them has helped me understand other people and cultures and thus contributed to the person I am today. They do however not split my identity, they consolidate it.”


As parents, for example, we can support our children’s journey towards this position of self-confidence and self-acceptance, not only with encouragement and acceptance of their developing identities, but also by providing as many positive encounters with their languages and cultures as possible. On this note, here are 3 of the things that me and my sister think our parents got right for us (Anglo-Celtic-Japanese growing up in England): Celebrating our cultures, visits to Japan, and varied groups of friends.


Celebrating our cultures

I feel very lucky to have grown up with Robin Hood and King Arthur & The Knights of The Round Table as well Japanese folk stories and anime. We were somewhat spoilt in having two sets of cultural festivities, but now my kids have three (Malay, English, and Japanese), insomuch as we can keep it up! Building a positive affinity to each culture, in the long run if not the shorter term, serves to develop interest, the desire to learn the language, and positive self-image.

Visits to Japan

Although it would take 3-4 years to save enough funds to go to Japan with assistance from grandparents, every trip was an amazing 4-6 week affair where all our relatives went out of their way to make up for lost time, so much so that we’ve never felt the physical distance in terms of how close our relationships were. When I first travelled to Japan on my own steam, aged 19, and then again a few years later, it was invaluable to be familiar with places as well as have family and friends I was comfortable with since childhood.


Varied groups of friends

In addition to school and neighbourhood friends, we also had our mum’s circle of Japanese mothers whose children we played with regularly. Whilst it was our parents who helped maintained our ties whilst growing up, our friendships continue to this day, not least because we’d always try to get together whenever we visited Japan. Also, when my mum heard of a new Japanese family or mixed family (i.e. English married to a Japanese), she’d also make an effort to reach out and bring us all together. Meeting other kids ‘like us’ was inevitably something we always looked forward to, and benefitted from, as our similar circumstances formed a good basis for shared understanding and empathy, as well as healthy cross-cultural conversations and debate from the mundane to the more complex:

“Shoes on or off?” one friend asked when comparing typically English and J      apanese homes.

“Definitely off!” we replied to nods of agreement.

“So what do you speak at home?”


The language of play and its crucial role in language development and children’s immediate needs and desire to join in and make friends, can never be overstated. Moreover is often key to breathing life into a minority language that a child might otherwise have limited encounters with outside the home.


Whilst everyone’s experiences are different, I hope that by sharing a few of mine, you might find something that connects. And please feel free to share yours, too!


Last but not least, it’s always worth knowing how to find other groups and information relevant to us for any given place or time in our lives. Some of the more common terms I’ve found helpful in Internet searches include mixed race, interracial, mixed roots, mixed heritage and multicultural, but half, double, and hapa can also lead to new discoveries as I found in Japan. And these days, many groups are thriving with the proliferation of social media. But if there isn’t a group in your area, now may be the best time to start one.

by Philip Shigeo Brown

The World Cup Guide for Mixed Families

What if the national team of your country and your spouse’s country are playing against each other???

-Don’t force the kids to take a side 🙂

-Jerseys, face painting and horns are great , flags may not be necessary

-Do not make fun of the other team

-Do not over-celebrate your team’s goal, your spouse may not say anything but it wouldn’t feel great

-Don’t forget to prepare local dishes from your spouse’s country

-Remember it is just a game

-Make sure you are having fun, this is a good opportunity to find out more about your spouse’s country

-No matter what the score is, your family wins!

What to do when bilingual kids mix languages (code-switching, a.k.a. code-mixing)

What to do when bilingual kids mix languages (code-switching, a.k.a. code-mixing)

• Don’t worry if your child mixes languages—language mixing is a common (and typically short-lived) phase of bilingual development.

• Trust your child is not confused—she may not know (or be able to explain) that she’s using two languages, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that she has two linguistic systems.

• Understand a bit about how and why children mix when evaluating your child’s language use.

• Minority languages may need extra support, and frequent use of both languages together can make it difficult to keep an eye on the support for each language.

• Set realistic expectations for your young learner—there are no perfect bilinguals in the world, and remember that language learning is a lifelong process—it’s never done.

Source: King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins  (p.184)

How to motivate children to learn a 2nd language (p.267)

how to motivate children to learn a second language


Language learning process of children

Language learning process of children 

Birth: Early crying, babies’ attempt to communicate

5 months: Cooing, making sounds like ga-ga, gu-gu

1st birthday: a few words like doggie, milk, dada

18 months~24 months: 2-word phrases such as eat now or baby cry

2 years~: Acquisition of  about 200 new words a month

2.5 years: 3-word sentences such as no want carrots

5 years: Understanding and correct production of grammar


Do Baby Signs Programs (Sign Language) Make Smarter Babies?

Baby Sign language does NOT make babies smarter

Do Baby Signs Programs (Sing Language) Make Smarter Babies? (p.51)

To investigate the question of whether baby signs programs help children acquire language earlier or advance their cognitive development, in 2003 researchers J. C. Johnston and colleagues examined seventeen recent studies of baby signing. Johnston found that the studies did not support the big claims made by the infancy industry, that baby signs help make babies smarter or acquire other languages sooner. Many of the studies they scrutinized only looked at a few children, had poor follow-up (they didn’t look at their language development for long enough periods of time), and little detail (for example, not enough information on how often the parents and children signed), and overall, the industry’s claims went much too far. What’s more, the researchers noted that “parents can be stressed by the challenges of meeting demands of work, caring for a young child, and other family and personal obligations, and experience guilt if they feel they are not doing everything recommended by infancy specialists and the infancy industry.”

Source: King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins


Language and Young Children (Ages 0–2) : How to Teach Toddlers and Infants a Language


Creating Good Language Learning Environments for Very Young Children (Ages 0–2) (p. 63)

  1. • Direct lots of rich, meaningful speech toward your child from birth.
  2. • Encourage friends, relatives, babysitters, siblings, and other visitors to speak and play with your child in the second language.
  3. • Engage in interactions that pique your child’s interests—for example, by using attention-grabbing toys, picture cards, or other props while you use the language.
  4. • Build up positive associations by singing and dancing to silly songs, listening to music, and playing games in the language.
  5. • Read stories to your child. Interact both with the book and with your child (for example, by acting out the stories and using funny faces and voices). Keep this light, fun, and brief.
  6. • When you’re looking for child care, find someone who speaks the second language.
Source: King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins


What to do when children reject to speak in the 2nd language (e.g. Spanish)

What to do when children reject to speak in the 2nd language (e.g. Spanish)

Cases that worked (from Bilingual Edge p. 244-245)

“• Anna (mother of Javier, age five): “We’ve had the most success using reverse psychology. Javier is super strong-willed and it’s actually helped at times to say to him something like ‘Spanish is only for grown-ups.’ Nothing makes him want to use it more than thinking he can’t.”

• Lucinda (stepmother of Matilda, age four): “Matilda went through phases of responding to us in English when we would use Portuguese with her. We just made a point of continuing in Portuguese. We didn’t switch to English, but we didn’t make a huge deal about it either and eventually the phases passed and she started using more Portuguese again.”

• Fabio (father of Lorenzo, age six, and Alessandro, age four): “I decided to turn speaking Italian into a game. The three of us took turns being the ‘English policeman’ each day. The policeman’s job was to fine whoever was caught speaking English. The penalty was ten cents into a jar. It made sticking with Italian more fun for everyone and really helped—at the end of the month we’d go out for pizza with our earnings.”

• Maria (mother of Samantha, age three): “When Sammy was little I would just pretend I didn’t understand English. She had to use French in order to get what she wanted. As she got older, she realized pretty fast that I understood English perfectly well. I don’t ignore her requests in English now, but ask her to say it in French in the same way most parents ask their kids to say please or thank you. I’ve explained to her that this is our special secret language that only the two of us know, so we want to make sure we practice it.”

• Cristina (mother of Jason, age nine, and Sandra, age six): “Once the kids got to be about four, we instituted a ‘beeping policy.’ Even though Spanish is my second language, my husband (who is from Venezuela) and I decided to make Spanish the only language of our house. Instead of nagging them, or saying, ‘Speak Spanish’ a hundred times a day, we ‘beep’ each other if we are caught speaking in English. The kids love to ‘beep’ us and shout ‘BEEP!’ if they catch me using English with my husband. It’s made a huge difference in keeping Spanish the only language of our house.””

Source: King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins


Top Ten Reasons Why Speaking Two Languages Is so Cool

Top Ten Reasons Why Speaking Two Languages Is Cool

10. I can have private conversations in my second language.

9. When I told (friend, teacher, neighbor) that I speak two languages, s/he was thrilled/very impressed.

8. I can meet more people from around the world (list of potential places where your child can meet people who speak the second language).

7. Many athletes are bilingual, like Yao Ming, Roger Federer, and Maria Sharapova.

6. I can wear and read clothes that have the print of the second language.

5. Many of my favorite celebrities like Antonio Banderas, Jennifer Lopez, or Yo-Yo Ma speak two languages, or more!

4. I can make more friends (list the names of your child’s bilingual friends here).

3. After finishing school, I’ll be able to get an awesome job that pays more, like………

2. I can help other people communicate who don’t speak two languages.

1. I feel proud and good about myself.

Source: King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins (p. 242-243)


Types of bilingual education


“Maintenance bilingual education: These programs are to help children become both and biliterate. In the United States, students in such programs typically speak a language other than English at home.

Transitional bilingual education: These programs aim to help children transition from their native language for example, Spanish, Cambodian, Portuguese, Arabic) to the language of the ma ority culture (in the United States, English . Content matter is taught in the child’s first language initially and the child simultaneously receives instruction in English as a second language. Later, the child is moved into classes taught in English for all sub ects.

Immersion bilingual education: Students are generally native speakers of a ma ority language for example, in the United States, this means children are English speakers , and 50 percent or more of the content matter is taught in a second language (percentages vary across schools). The idea is that students are fully immersed in the second language throughout the school day.

Two-way (or dual-language) immersion bilingual education:

These programs aim to help native speakers of a language other than English (such as Spanish) to learn English, while at the same time helping children who already speak English to learn this other language. Children from both language groups are together much of the day, and content matter instruction is delivered in both languages. The goal of these programs is to help promote bilingualism, biliteracy, and crosscultural understanding for all.

(Source: this link doe snot work although listed on King & Mackey, )”

Code-mixing is typically shortterm phase for children learning two languages. This is perfectly normal and quite common.

Many of the skills that children develop to learn a second language can be used to learn a third. (p.229)

On page 51 King nad Mackey state that Baby Sign language does NOT make babies smarter

Source: King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins


How to Create a Good Language Learning Environments for Preschoolers

How to Create a Good Language Learning Environments for Preschoolers

• Have fun integrating the language as a part of your daily routines. For example, sing morning songs in the language, play alphabet and counting games, guessing games, and have a word of the day.

• Read stories to your child in the language. Keep these light, fun, and brief. Encourage your child to interact with the book and you (for example, together, act out the stories, use funny faces, give voice to the characters).

• Find other children who speak the target language for your child to play with. Make these language dates fun by providing props (treats and toys, musical instruments, scavenger hunts). Children learn a lot from each other. Even finding children a bit older than your child will provide positive “big boy” role models.

• Look for games in the target language, including things like board games and flash cards that encourage interactions.

• Find funny cartoons and characters that use the target language.

• Use crafts as an opportunity to speak and interact in the target language. Consider making cultural learning opportunities out of the craft time as well.

• Play songs in the second language in the car or use headphones on public transport.

• Be enthusiastic and positive about learning the language.

• Don’t be overly focused on perfection or correction, instead focus on what your child has achieved.


Source: King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins