The existential question of “Who am I?” is not new. However, in the twenty-first century, which requires so many of us to work within intercultural business contexts, we have to revisit the question from a new perspective: exactly who am I when I communicate using English as a second language for my work in intercultural environments?
In such situations most of my clients, who use English at an upper-intermediate to advanced level, tell me that they feel as if something is lacking. Some say that they miss their ability to speak eloquently, which they can’t seem to replicate no matter how much additional English vocabulary they learn. Others complain that what they like most about themselves is their ability to make jokes, which is impossible for them in English. While others insist that they sound more authoritative, or more persuasive, or simply more professional when using their mother tongue. Those that can’t clearly express what is missing nevertheless feel that they are losing a part of their identity when using English.
It is well known that language and our sense of self are closely linked. Many studies over the years have concluded that people change their personalities when they speak another language. Usually such studies are conducted by psychologists on people who are either bilingual or bicultural, which applies to half the world’s population, according to François Grosjean, author of Bilingual: Life and Reality.
When people are undergoing major life changes, the term identity crisis is often used. Identity crisis is a term created by Erik Erikson, who defined identity as “a subjective sense as well as an observable quality of personal sameness and continuity.”
So when my clients use English as a second language at work, and are in the process of adapting themselves to a new intercultural context, it is precisely this “personal sameness and continuity” that they miss. It is a break from what is known and habitual for them in their own language and culture. Consequently, they need to explore different ways of looking at themselves and how they relate to others.
While that exploration is a process all human beings undergo countless times during their personal and professional lives, few expect to have to go through such a process when working in another language for a multinational business in their own country or abroad. As a result, there are often few appropriate resources made available to employees to help them deal with identity issues.
This is one of the factors I assess when I conduct an intercultural communication audit with new clients. How much of a sense of loss are employees experiencing? That is a very personal and individual matter. While it is all too easy for everyone to say how optimistic he or she is about the enriching opportunity of working interculturally in a foreign language, not everyone sincerely feels that. Addressing the realities of people’s experiences helps them make the transition faster and more comfortably. Ideally, there can be group discussions about identity issues within teams or departments, which I routinely include in my intercultural communication seminars.
Only by addressing these concerns directly can we ask and answer a new kind of identity question: how can I build an intercultural identity and what am I gaining by doing so?