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As the multi-ethnic population grows in an English Language dominated society in Singapore, it is important to better understand how bilingual youths perceive themselves and come to terms with their identity while living in a society that dichotomizes majority versus minority and English-speakers versus non-English speakers.
This study attempted to shed some light on the intimate interplay between their MT and ethnic identity, by exploring the multifaceted nature of ethnic identity held by young Malay adults who maintained their heritage language. The study examined the factors that contribute to their sense of who they are, either positively or negatively, and the role their MT plays in ethnic identity. The study also looked into the ways in which conflicts contribute to forming ethnic identity, in particular, how these youths resolve the conflict between who they think they should be and who they want to be.
Construction of Identity
Identity is multifaceted and complex, as one's identity is based on myriad factors such as religious orientation, culture, education, community influences, family values, and belief systems (Myhill, 2003). This sense of identity causes individuals to behave in certain ways. According to Tajfel and Turner's (1986) Social Identity Theory, people first categorize themselves into groups, then identify themselves within a certain group. That is, when considering identity, individuals consider it from both social and personal perspectives. Social and personal identities are two distinguishable entities, yet they cannot be regarded as separate because one cannot be isolated from a social milieu where interaction with others is inevitable.
Phinney (1990), who expanded Tajfel and Turner's concept of identity to ethnic identity formation, defines ethnic identity as "a dynamic, multidimensional construct that refers to one's identity, or sense of self as a member of an ethnic group" (p. 63). Phinney (2003) also adds that, for immigrant youths, it is their social identity that becomes ethnic identity because they categorize themselves based on their ethnic group membership. For minorities, social identity has more impact on individual identity in which more layers exist based on how they perceive themselves as well as how they are perceived by others. The social influence on identity, however, does not seem to be uniformly applied to all ethnic groups. Feuerverger (1991) reported, from a study conducted on groups of Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Hebrew students in a university in Canada, that Jewish students demonstrated the highest level of ethnic identity among the participants while Japanese students showed the lowest. It appears that there is no clear explanation regarding the different degrees of ethnic identity held by various ethnic groups.
Individual identity, as opposed to group identity, is thought to form in a linear and predictable manner as one develops psychological and chronological maturity as shown in Piaget's or Erikson's psychological development theories (Erikson, 1963; Flavell, Miller, & Miller, 2002). The core thesis of Piaget or Erikson is that individuals typically go through discrete stages of development, and each stage can be marked with sound development or lack thereof resulting in psychological problems. Tse (1997; 1998; 2000; 2001), who situated individual identity formation in the framework of ethnic identity development, argues that visible ethnic minorities who are identified by their non-White features neither necessarily go through all prescribed stages of the model in a linear fashion nor reach the highest level of
the ethnic identity formation stage. Some favor the dominant culture and do not necessarily develop ethnic identity. This might have to do with the individual's ambivalent feelings toward the ethnic culture. Others develop personal identity by incorporating their ethnicity and the dominant culture's expectations.
Ethnic Identity and Heritage Language
Many studies have identified a positive relationship between one's ethnic identity and the degree of heritage language fluency (Phinney, Romero, Nava, & Huang, 2001; Tse, 1997). Cho (2000) studied 1.5- and second-generation Korean Americans and found that participants with greater heritage language competence showed a stronger sense of who they are. Along the same vein, Soto (2002) concluded that bilingual Puerto Rican children who had high levels of competence in Spanish demonstrated a strong sense of ethnic identity as Puerto Rican. Other research that investigated the impact of weekend heritage language schools on ethnic identity is highly informative and sheds light on close links between the two factors. Japanese American students (Chinen & Tucker, 2006; Shibata, 2000) and Japanese Canadians (Oketani, 1997) demonstrated a stronger sense of ethnic identity after attending Japanese Saturday school.
Another study (Wright & Taylor, 1995) conducted on Inuit children in Canada reported that the self-esteem of these children significantly increased after they enrolled in a heritage language program teaching Inuktitut. The findings from You's (2005) study of young Korean children enrolled in Korean weekend school were also consistent with those of the studies mentioned previously. The hypothesis that individuals with greater heritage language proficiency have a stronger ethnic identity or show a more positive attitude toward their ethnic group is well supported and documented as shown above. Nonetheless there are some conflicting findings regarding the relationship between heritage language proficiency and ethnic identity. Mah (2005), who surveyed second generation Chinese adults, found that heritage language is only linked to participants' ability to participate in cultural rituals such as ethnic activities, but not to ethnic pride or core values of Chinese groups.
Similar results were reported in Smolicz's (1992) study conducted in Australia. While Polish
Australians held on to the idea that heritage language is a core value to their community as a group, Welsh and Chinese Australians did not believe that maintaining their heritage language was important to their ethnicity. While recognizing that identity is complex, compound, and even contradictory, it may be concluded that the ability to speak the heritage language can help ethnic minorities develop a better sense of who they are as ethnic individuals in general. It is also highly likely that those with high levels of heritage language competence make meaningful connections to their own group of people. What is not certain is whether heritage language proficiency is sufficient enough to provide a path to ensuring positive ethnic identity formation for youths of all ethnic backgrounds.
In forming identity, there can be confusion or conflict for those who do not successfully establish a positive identity. The concept of conflict in identity development was elaborated by Erikson (1963) who theorized that children and adolescents face the possibility of identity conflict in each developmental stage if social conditions or social interactions are not conducive to developing a sound ego. Erikson postulates that it is crucial for children to be surrounded by a supportive social environment so that they can appropriately develop a positive sense of who they are. A supportive social environment is even more important
for bilingual/bicultural children than for monolingual and monocultural children in developing identity. Brown (2003) emphasizes the importance of monitoring bilingual children's identity formation since they are faced with negotiating differences in personal values and expectations from two different cultures. Tse (1998) also explains that ethnic minorities tend to believe that the majority group holds more prestige and status; thus, they feel the need to adopt the majority culture and to conform to it. As a result, those who favor the dominant culture do not develop a strong ethnic identity. Noels and Clement (1996) explain that adolescents and adults who speak a low status language tend to identify themselves more with the majority language and culture while their identification with their heritage language and culture is decreased. These studies show that the desire for acceptance and belonging can often create confusion and alienation, especially for young bilingual adolescents. Ethnic stereotypes can offset the ways in which ethnic individuals feel about themselves in that if they perceive that they are linked with ethnic stereotypes, their self identity could suffer even if they have high selfesteem (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). It seems that negatively portrayed collective identity dominates individuals' identity. Many studies (Farver, Xu, Bhadha, Narang, & Liebar, 2007; Khan & Lambert, 2001; Kim-ju & Liem, 2003) show that ethnic minorities felt better about themselves when their ethnic group was positively reflected by the majority. Conversely, it would be easier for ethnic minorities to maintain
strong self-ethnic identity when their collective identity is viewed favorably by the majority. It is said that Asian Americans are more group-oriented than European Americans, who are more individualistic (Bracey, B´amaca, & UmaËœna-Taylor, 2004). Implied is that the impact of negative stereotypes would weigh heavier on Asian minority youths.