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Unlocking the potential of multilingualism: The power of developing a multilingual identity

Rasman Rasman, PhD Student at Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

Multilingual skills are vital for effective communication and collaboration in today’s interconnected world. For students to develop these skills, schools may need to focus on fostering a multilingual identity. Research demonstrates that if students view themselves as multilingual, regardless of their proficiency levels, they may exhibit higher motivation to learn more languages (Forbes et al., 2021). This is perhaps due to the sense of ownership and connection to the languages they identify with. Conversely, if students identify themselves as monolingual, chances are they become less confident in using and expanding their multilingual repertoire due to having a fixed mindset towards their language abilities.

In addition to improving individual additional language learning, students with a multilingual identity may also contribute to preserving linguistic diversity. One reason is that such students are more aware of the values of all languages they understand. In countries that are struggling with maintaining their linguistic diversity, having young generations with such a sense of self is critical. A case in point is Indonesia, which, despite being the second-most linguistically diverse country, has been witnessing the gradual loss of speakers for its 718 minority languages. It has been argued that dominant languages such as Indonesian and English have permeated schools, media and sometimes even homes, pushing minority language use to the periphery and thus leading to a decline in pride and ownership towards these languages (Cohn & Ravindranath, 2014).

‘Indonesia, despite being the second-most linguistically diverse country, has been witnessing the gradual loss of speakers for its 718 minority languages.’

Grappling with this problem, the Indonesian Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology launched a programme called the Revitalization of Local Languages in 2022. It targets 1,491 local-language-speaking communities, 29,370 teachers, 17,955 school principals, 1,175 supervisors and 1.5 million students in 15,236 schools. It focuses specifically on preparing local-language learning models, enriching local-language material in the curriculum, and formulating local linguistic and literary content. While I believe all these steps are highly critical, I argue that it would be even more effective and sustainable to also include explicit identity-based interventions in the classroom. Forbes et al. (2021), for example, have demonstrated the effectiveness of an explicit and participative identity-based pedagogical intervention which involves 1) cultivating students’ knowledge of multilingualism; 2) making them more cognisant of how these issues could affect their sense of self; and 3) promoting reflexivity and self-reflection. Such interventions – which consider individual, social and historical factors – may be a useful tool in Indonesia, and potentially other similar contexts, to provide an opportunity for students to reflect on their linguistic repertoire and engage with their deeper sense of self as multilingual (Fisher et al., 2020). This can potentially help them appreciate the values of not only Bahasa Indonesia and English but also their indigenous languages.

Apart from conducting identity-based interventions, multilingual identity may also develop if teachers have the capacity to transform their classrooms into a multilingual space where students can freely express their full linguistic repertoire and identities. In relation to this, I have outlined some of the possible ways to create such a space (Rasman & Margana, 2022). For example, teachers can create this multilingual space in their classrooms by explicitly and deliberately legitimizsing students’ creative and critical use of their multiple languages that may otherwise be discouraged or ignored, thus transforming their perceptions of the place and their own sense of identity.

To accomplish this, drawing on the empirical findings from our research in an English language classroom in Indonesia, we suggest some important considerations that teachers may need to keep in mind. First, teachers may need to explicitly communicate their intention to their students that they allow the use of multiple languages at the beginning of the lesson. Second, during the lesson, teachers may also find it helpful to engage with their learners on the issue of monolingualism and multilingualism by sharing their personal stories. What’s more, by modelling the multiple language use during the lesson, teachers can create a multilingual space whose border is then expanded by the students. Finally, teachers need to notice any pushback from students and make sure the multilingual space is not shrinking as a result. All of this is to ensure that students can find space to reflect on themselves in relation to their languages.

In conclusion, developing a multilingual identity in students through the creation of a multilingual classroom environment and identity-based interventions can lead to higher language learning motivation, preservation of linguistic diversity, and a deeper sense of self as multilingual. Teachers can play a crucial role in fostering multilingual identity by creating a multilingual space and engaging students in multilingualism.


Cohn, A. C., & Ravindranath, M. (2014). Local languages in Indonesia: Language maintenance or language shift. Linguistik Indonesia, 32(2), 131–148.

Fisher, L., Evans, M., Forbes, K., Gayton, A., & Liu, Y. (2020). Participative multilingual identity construction in the languages classroom: A multi-theoretical conceptualisation. International Journal of Multilingualism, 17(4), 448–466. 

Forbes, K., Evans, M., Fisher, L., Gayton, A., Liu, Y., & Rutgers, D. (2021). Developing a multilingual identity in the languages classroom: The influence of an identity-based pedagogical intervention. Language Learning Journal, 49(4), 433–451. 

Rasman, R., & Margana, M. (2022). Constructing translanguaging space in EFL classrooms in Indonesia: Opportunities and challenges. In A. Krulatz, G. Neokleous, & A. Dahl (Eds.) Theoretical and applied perspectives on teaching foreign languages in multilingual settings: Pedagogical implications (pp. 118–133). Multilingual Matters.