Language and (inter)cultural identity

Hana Svetin, November 3 2022

european identity


Many researchers have studied the relationship between language and identity. Some have proposed these two as being a single entity or assigning language the crucial role of a “mediating tool for constructing and deconstructing individual and social identities” (Barnawi, 2009, p. 66). Language is not just an integral part of our identities. It also represents a critical element of our collective, national and cultural identities. It also offers insight into personality- an essential part of individual identity- through a lexical hypothesis. The hypothesis is based on the idea that language allows humans to describe specific ways in which they differ or are alike. Based on this idea, many psychologists believe it is possible to describe personality through descriptions encoded into a particular culture’s language (Cutler & Condon, 2022).

Out of all identities a person constructs (e.g., individual, social, national), the cultural one divides people into different cultural groups and, in that sense, also connects its members (e.g. Lee, 2002). One of the main ways this is achieved is through language: speakers must learn how to communicate with each other to share ideas, teach national histories and pass them down to future generations.

On the other hand, one could argue that an intercultural identity is strengthened through the use of many languages and not just the mother tongue, such as in the case of the European identity. What once started as a goal to create a European common market and customs union within six member states has now grown into one of the most extensive examples of international collaboration and cooperation, co-existing in 27 member countries. Interestingly enough, European identity is not one through which national borders help us define ourselves. Indeed, a common way to develop cultural identity is by identifying ourselves as part of a group different from some ‘other’ group. However, in the case of the European identity, it is the identification across borders and nationalities that forges such identity. Fligstein et al. (2012) emphasise that for a European identity to develop, one must routinely interact with people from different societies, partake in European international projects, and more often than not speak a second, third, or fourth language for work. 

But what is the real situation amongst Europeans? It seems they identify more as their nation’s citizens rather than being European. Last year’s European Commission Report (2021) shows that, on average, only 56% of European citizens identified as European. In contrast to all the other countries, where the citizens’ European identity was lower when compared to their national identity, Luxembourg was the only country that ranked higher on European rather than national identity (55% vs. 47%). This data is not as surprising when taking into account Luxembourg’s colourful mix of cultures, as foreigners account for almost half of its population. Luxembourg is also one of the founding six member countries of the European Coal and Steel Community, which came to be the European Union (European Union, n.d.).

Considering most if not all definitions of cultural identity recognize language as one of the key elements for internalising one’s cultural beliefs, values, norms, habits, and customs (eg. Lee, 2002), learning other tongues could mean going beyond one’s national identity (presuming there is only one dominant language spoken in the said nation). That would more likely be the case in smaller countries that depend more on other tongues for successful communication (in business, studies, and travel). However, cultural identity consists of several factors: 1) linguistic, 2) regional/graphic, 3) religious, and 4) racial/ethnic (Pandharipande 1992, as cited in Lee, 2002).

The loss of one factor does not necessarily mean deconstruction of one’s cultural identity, but it can lead to the strengthening of the rest of one’s identity markers which reinforce the cultural identity. So one’s sense of belonging to a specific culture may be left intact even if one may not speak its language. However, studies show that cultural identity and heritage language proficiency are strongly correlated in people with bicultural backgrounds (e.g., Lee, 2002). Similarly, strong cultural identity in international students studying in America was found to be positively correlated with learning English (Peng & Patterson, 2022), whereas strong ethnic identity might inhibit English language proficiency for various reasons (Peng & Patterson, 2022; Wuli Fitriati & Wata, 2021).

Promoting the development of a multicultural or ‘global citizen’ identity and a sense of interculturalism could strengthen the role of multilingualism in such an identity (Peng & Patterson, 2022). Encouraging students and others to discover the benefits of identifying with multiple cultures and thus finding the possibilities of contributing to a wider community could lead to a higher sense of intercultural identities, such as European identity, without endangering one’s sense of national identity.

Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Eutopia Student Think Tank (EUSTT) nor the EUTOPIA Alliance.

Barnawi, O. Z. (2009). The construction of identity in L2 academic classroom community: A small scale study of two Saudi MA in TESOL students at North American University. Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies5(2), 62–84.


Becuwe, N. & Baneth, O. (2021). Special Eurobarometer 508 on Values and Identities of EU citizens. Scharfbillig, M. (ed.) Publications Office of the European Union. doi:10.2760/206143. 


Cutler, A., & Condon, D. M. (2022). Deep Lexical Hypothesis: Identifying personality structure in natural language. arXiv preprint arXiv:2203.02092.


Fitriati, S. W., & Rata, E. (2021). Language, Globalisation, and National Identity: A Study of English-Medium Policy and Practice in Indonesia. Journal of Language, Identity & Education20(6), 411–424.


Fligstein, N., Polyakova, A., & Sandholtz, W. (2012). European integration, nationalism and European identity. JCMS: journal of common market studies50, 106–122.


History of the EU (n.d.). European Union. 


Lee, J. S. (2002). The Korean language in America: The role of cultural identity in heritage language learning. Language culture and curriculum15(2), 117–133.


Peng, A., & Patterson, M. M. (2022). Relations among cultural identity, motivation for language learning, and perceived English language proficiency for international students in the United States. Language, Culture and Curriculum35(1), 67–82.

Hana Svetin

Hana Svetin

Master’s student of Psychology at University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Arts. She is enthusiastic about reading and writing, especially on the topics of health psychology, neuropsychology and evolutionary psychology.