Understanding Bilingualism 1: What it Means to Be Bicultural - Papers & Essays



TOP > Papers & Essays > Language Development & Education > Understanding Bilingualism 1: What it Means to Be Bicultural

Papers & Essays

Understanding Bilingualism 1: What it Means to Be Bicultural


Understanding Bilingualism 
 1: What it Means to Be Bicultural (This paper)
 2: Bilingualism Concepts and Viewpoints 
 3: Bilingual Child-Raising Possibilities in Japan 

The words "bicultural" and "biculturalism" are occasionally used, but it is evident that their meanings are not clearly understood. In Japan "bicultural" is often a label in preference to "half" for children of mixed parentage regardless of their actual personality. For most basically, "bicultural" should mean that two cultures are operative in one person, or at least that one person can operate in two cultures. Then "biculturalism" can refer to either the academic study of cultures in contact or, as an -ism, the conviction that recognizing two or more cultures in individuals and society is beneficial. By comparison, "monoculturalism" can mean simply having no exposure to other cultures or, as an -ism, intolerance of people who are different because of fear (xenophobia) or assumed superiority of one's culture (a kind of chauvinism). Scholars may shy away from researching biculturalism because cultural factors cannot be precisely isolated or measured. Indeed, although one may read about it, "being bicultural" may be nearly impossible to understand unless one has experienced shifting gears between two cultures in oneself. Common misconceptions about bilingualism, plus monocultural politics seeping into education, have added to the confusion about cross-cultural terms. This article therefore aims to illustrate these issues and shed light on what it means for a child or an adult to be bicultural.

This article builds on a base of previous works that are mostly available online at the Bilingualism and Japanology Intersection: http://waoe.org/steve/epublist.html, or in Japanese: http://waoe.org/steve/jpublist.html. There are links to articles on Japanese and other Asian cultures as well as research on bilingualism. It may be particularly helpful to read McCarty (1998) on East-West biculturalism and McCarty (2003) on East-West cultural differences (see the References below).


Bicultural Children

A child is raised in a certain culture, an unconscious process termed "enculturation." Note that it is also quite possible to have two or more native languages and cultures. Then a person at any age can adapt to another culture ("acculturation"). In the latter case, an adult or young person able to compare the two cultures can consciously choose between characteristics of the two cultures. It could be a personality preference, but more likely it is the reactions of others that convince a person that the behavioral norms of one of the cultures work more smoothly or achieve goals more effectively in the given circumstances. Because of social pressures, a person's cultural identity, or what cultural set a person identifies with, may not reflect the actual cultural composition of the individual. Identity can change and should be encouraged to evolve, rather than being like loyalty to a brand. However, identity depends on social and psychological factors, some of which may be unconscious or beyond a person's control. As a result, a person may variously prefer a certain combination of the two cultures, or identify with only one side as if the person were monocultural.

The cultures of each parent or caregiver, and the proportion of time spent interacting with the child, determine the pattern of enculturation until a child enters the institutional culture of a school or day care center. Languages actually used with the child also carry cultural meanings. In the case of an international marriage in Japan, if the mother or main caregiver is from a foreign culture and willingly bonds with the infant in her native language, then the child can naturally absorb two different cultures. Japanese culture emanates from the Japanese parent, the community, and mass media in any case. Thus if the foreign parent goes to work full-time, it takes much extra effort to raise a child bilingually and biculturally. What seemed to work with an infant can stop working when the child enters a Japanese school and starts to feel social pressure. Therefore such families may need to regularly visit foreign relatives or live abroad so that the child has a personal stake in the other culture. A final factor is that children have genetic predispositions that match or clash with certain cultural norms. If parents try to determine the cultural identity of a child, it could have disempowering effects such as discouraging initiative. No outcomes such as bilingualism and biculturalism are guaranteed, so calling all such kids bicultural is unwarranted. Personality development, as a complex process of interaction among inborn factors, family, environment, individual choices and their consequences, needs to be allowed to unfold as a natural process.

Children develop coping strategies because they are vulnerable, not yet having body and mind fully integrated with a workable identity. It is a trial and error process because they cannot reflect on cause and effect, stand on principles or gracefully compromise, reason with self-consistency, and other thought processes which can be difficult even for adults. Before their personality is fully developed, children enter school where they are outnumbered by fellow students and subject to the power of authorities. Parents may have tried to teach their children right from wrong, but principles and parental examples may not suffice as coping strategies for children in school. If parental guidance were based on Western norms of self-esteem, independence, and openness, children might face cultural conflicts in a Japanese school. The East Asian emphasis is on playing a role in a unified group, such that children usually want to fit in well and avoid being singled out as different.

Recently in Japan, traditional pressures to conform have escalated, particularly due to camera-equipped and Internet-enabled mobile phones. It is so important to young people to stay connected with their peer group that they keep their mobile phones switched on even at night. If, as increasingly happens, they are harassed or bullied through ubiquitous networks, then even their own room no longer provides a sanctuary, which has led in some cases to suicide (Wada, 2009). Even more so at school, reading the atmosphere (kuki o yomu) has become an imperative for self-protection, with students and even teachers finding that the path of least resistance is to side with bullies. The English letters KY disparagingly refer to the inability to read the atmosphere (kuki yomenai), and a KY language of obscure letters and symbols has proliferated in short, frequent mobile phone messages. Kids themselves are hard-pressed to keep up with the ambiguous subtleties, so they stay connected and hasten to conform to expectations lest they be the next KY victim of bullying (Yoneyama, 2008). In such as atmosphere where principles of right or wrong are overruled by the need to flow with the current consensus, even genuinely bicultural children would be liable to hide or deny the side of their cultural identity that differs from the mainstream.

Besides appearance, language is most revealing of differences, whether it is a lack of fluency that marks one as a foreigner or a Japanese dialect from the countryside. A Japanese child who has recently returned from living abroad (kikoku shijo), or someone of Japanese descent raised abroad (Nikkeijin), like other foreigners cannot read the atmosphere, so they cannot avoid being different, at least until they adjust themselves. Even if they are toyed with as a sort of celebrity, they are marked by cultural and linguistic differences as outsiders, although most such children would prefer not to be conspicuous. Appearances trigger automatic assumptions about others, which can make communication difficult for someone with a Japanese face who is not fluent in Japanese, or for someone who does not look Japanese but is fluent in Japanese. Regardless of appearances, those who were raised in Japan and currently in the school system generally can, for better or worse, read the atmosphere. Any child who cannot act on behavioral cues as expected by the group would be vulnerable in any culture, dependent on the goodwill of others. They are liable to have stress, and might sacrifice self-expression for a safer silence, at the risk of appearing gloomy and prolonging their own exile. There are also children who naturally charm other people and can ride their celebrity status through an enjoyable childhood.


Cultures in Contact

The degree or kind of biculturalism possible is also affected by characteristics of the two cultures and the relationship between them. For example, if the two cultures are geopolitical enemies or rivals, it is difficult for individuals to go beyond instrumental motivation to integrative motivation where elements of the other culture could be incorporated into oneself. The permeability of cultures also differs, where some cultures are more open to acculturating foreigners, for instance because they value people for their individual qualities, whereas other cultures are tribal, valuing bloodlines, and feel that cultural allegiance is a matter of patriotism. In the latter type of culture, there may be no real conception of biculturalism or no acceptance of plural cultures in an individual. Where cultural allegiance is mutually exclusive, individuals are seen as either belonging within the fold of their culture or crossing over to the outside. Japan has tended to be a case of an impermeable culture, with a nearly insuperable wall maintained between the Japanese and non-Japanese realms. This way of thinking, strongest among public officials, affects education, with English fluency and internationalization subordinated thus far to maintaining Japaneseness. Thus Japanese individuals tend to fear being perceived as crossing over, for example being called a foreigner if they speak fluent English. Under such circumstances, bilingualism is not seriously considered the goal that it should be, let alone biculturalism.

Yet cultural crossings do take place between Japanese and non-Japanese, perhaps like an underground railroad at this stage. Young Japanese are changing, with more international contacts through travel and the Internet, while more foreigners are gaining fluency in the Japanese language and culture. Unsanctioned by officialdom, bilingual and bicultural people in Japan are gradually increasing. It is noticeable in media reports that innovative young adults are often those with more experience of foreign cultures. Take the following interview with Kazuhiro Soda, the director of popular documentary movies such as "Senkyo," for example:

Soda said dealing with two different cultures made him keenly aware of some characteristics in Japanese society that seem to drive so many of his fellow countrymen into the state of 'burnout,' including the tendency to be excessively meticulous and the inability to see things from diverse perspectives. "It seems to me that in Japan, people are very often in a situation in which they do things because they have to, not because they want to," he said. ... "As long as you can play by the rules of society, you are fine, because you are allowing yourself to be brainwashed to some extent. But when that 'spell' begins to loosen, exposing the gap between your actions and true feelings, you are very vulnerable," he said. (Murphy, 2008)


Multiculturalism and Politics

Even in Western countries there are prejudices and misunderstandings about languages and cultures in contact. Bilingual education has been attacked in the U.S. as a proxy for immigration. While mainstream students struggle with elementary Spanish and other foreign languages, immigrants are often encouraged to use English only, losing their native language and harming their cognitive abilities. Different languages and cultures are often seen as more of a problem for society than as a resource for international trade or a human right. In the U.K. a Member of Parliament wrote:

All around us, in our courts, in the oppressive liberty-destroying Bills being rushed through Parliament, we see the disasters of multiculturalism, the system by which too many Muslims have been allowed to grow up in this country with no sense of loyalty to its institutions, and with a sense of complete apartness. (Johnson, 2006)

Whatever troubles there may be with minorities, surely multiculturalism itself is not a problem but could rather provide solutions for conflicts between different groups constituting a society. In this case multiculturalism is being used as a political football and becomes a negative code word similar to bilingual education as targeted by monocultural purists in the U.S. But does such scapegoating of minorities and playing on prejudices work politically? The above author is now Mayor of the City of London.

Exposing prejudices and clarifying misconceptions about languages and cultures in contact is like being a fireman in a city with many arsonists and careless smokers. Languages and cultures as valuable resources and human rights should not need defending but just encouragement. But at the societal level, such biases exist and must be countered with reliable information, as popular views affect young people becoming bilingual and bicultural. Research on bilingualism published in Japanese is generally cautious but reliable, while public statements by authority figures sometimes repeat common misconceptions. Then biculturalism, with much less research and tied to minority groups, is not well understood or appreciated. But biculturalism can be experienced, whether or not individuals can prove it or even realize what they are. The documentary film director Kazuhiro Soda, quoted in the above section on Cultures in Contact, was well aware of the greater choices he had as a bicultural.


Bilingualism and Multiculturalism in Canada

Many countries in Europe and elsewhere show that governments need not be hostile to the diversity that results from the immigration that they need. A positive example is Canada, which has two official languages and a policy of multiculturalism. Canada has large groups of native English and French speakers, plus indigenous people, European immigrants, and conspicuous minorities from Asia and Africa. Canadian researchers have shown the benefits of bilingual education, particularly content-based immersion methods where over half of classes are taught in the children's second language. Shapson (1984) reports that multicultural education was defined in the Ontario Legislature as "education in which the individual child of whatever origin finds, not mere acceptance or tolerance, but respect and understanding (p. 8) ... cultural diversity is seen and used as a valuable resource to enrich the lives of all." It appeals to the better nature of people to see languages and cultures not as problems to be solved by assimilation but rather as human rights and resources for mutual enrichment.


Benefits of Becoming Bilingual and Bicultural

At the individual level, the author researched 195 Japanese and English native speaking informants who were bilingual to some extent in the two languages. Among the quantitative results, about 83% of both groups reported positive effects on their cultural identity. Most reported that their repertoire of thought and behavior had been expanded, while some enjoyed a completely positive bicultural identity. The qualitative results on how respondents were affected by the two languages and cultures in themselves were also almost entirely positive. The research was conducted bilingually and published in Japanese (McCarty, 1999). The author interprets the results as showing ethical as well as cognitive benefits of becoming bilingual and bicultural.



Even more than becoming bilingual, if not started as a small child, becoming bicultural seems to be both an advanced attainment and difficult to understand if one has not experienced it. Given positive social attitudes toward linguistic and cultural diversity, the second language and culture do not take anything away from one's native heritage but are additive and enriching. For someone bilingual to an extent in Japanese and English, for example, being bicultural is like being able to see the same situation through both Japanese and Western eyes, then having the choice of which way to respond. Having more than one language and culture is a resource for the society and gives the individual more choices in behavior and thought, therefore more freedom.



Johnson, B. (2006, March 23). The Shabina Begum case never had anything to do with modesty. London: The Telegraph. Retrieved January 15, 2009, from

McCarty, S. (1998). Cultural Liberation: East-West Biculturalism for a New Century. Multicultural Pavilion, University of Virginia. Retrieved January 15, 2009, from http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/papers/mccarty.html

McCarty, S. (2003). East-West Cultural Differences in Basic Life Stance. GLOCOM Platform. Tokyo: Center for Global Communications, International University of Japan. Retrieved January 15, 2009, from

McCarty, S. (1999). Nigengo nibunka heiyo no igi [The significance of becoming bilingual and bicultural]. In M. Yamamoto (Ed.), Bairingaru no Sekai [World of the Bilingual], pp. 133-159. Tokyo: Taishukan Shoten.

Murphy, M. (2008). Filmmaker hopes to start debate on Japan's 'burnout' psyche. Japan Today. Retrieved January 12, 2009.

Shapson, S. & D'Oyley, V. (Eds.) (1984). Bilingual and Multicultural Education: Canadian Perspectives. Clevedon, England: Mulitlingual Matters.

Wada, S. (2009). Bullying! - Causes and Possible Solutions. Tokyo: Child Research Net. Retrieved January 17, 2009.

Yoneyama, S. (2008). The Era of Bullying: Japan under Neoliberalism. The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 1-3-09. Retrieved January 12, 2009.

Next - Understanding Bilingualism 2: Bilingualism Concepts and Viewpoints

Steve McCarty

Steve McCarty is a Professor at Osaka Jogakuin College and University in Japan. He is also President of the World Association for Online Education (WAOE). He was born in Boston and studied Asia at the University of Hawaii, specializing in Japan in graduate school. He teaches content-based EFL courses such as topic discussion, research paper writing, intercultural communication, language acquisition, and bilingualism. He regularly lectures to foreign officials on "Japanese People and Society" for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). He also advises Worldwide Kids English for Benesse Corporation in Tokyo. He and his Japanese wife have raised two happy sons.

See his homepage of online publications in English/Japanese
-English would link to http://waoe.org/steve/epublist.html
-Japanese would link to http://waoe.org/steve/jpublist.htm