How Language Creates Identity and Difference, Essay Example
The person whose first language is not English and who comes to an Anglophone country immediately learns how language shapes one’s social identity. Of course, this does not only apply to the English language. Any immigrant, who goes to a country in which he or she is not familiar with the dominant language, will understand that they occupy a different social role. Furthermore, this could even be extended to dialects. For example, speaking with a certain accent or dialect, such as the Southern accent in the United States, ultimately conjures up its own social roles and stereotypes. This type of phenomenon occurs when the way in which an individual speaks – be it language or dialect – is different from the norm. In other words, this type of phenomenon occurs when the way in which an individual speaks a particular language or dialect is conceived by the dominant group as the Other. In this case, language becomes one of the crucial ways in which our social identities are formed. A problem with being a multilingual student, one whose native language is not the dominant language, is therefore that there is a personal feeling with marginalization, of constantly being received as an Other. In this sense, language does not represent a means of communication, but something which causes division.
This thesis can be developed through references to personal biography. As a multilingual student, I am clearly aware that in some sense I am different from the majority. No matter how well one speaks, if one has not mastered all the nuances of a dialect, including preferred words and the “local” way to pronounce them, this will be easily identifiable by those who have lived their whole life in a given linguistic context. In other words, one is immediately identified as an “Other”, as someone that does not fit within the main social grouping. It is often a cliché that language is a form of communication, which means that we can communicate to others through speech: many philosophers have commented that this is what distinguishes us from other animals and makes us truly human. But the other side of the coin is often overlooked in regards to language. Language becomes a means for division, even when two people speak in the same language: language also divides humans who do not share a common discourse. The mastery of a language therefore is not merely the mastery of a particular vocabulary, but also is a case of being accepted into a social group because of how one speaks. Language can play a crucial role in the formation of social roles and social positions, for better or for worse.
This is not to say that anyone who is a native speaker of a language is immediately accepted into a social group. Yet language can be one of the means for identifying differences. Hence, as Lu notes, referring to his own autobiographical experiences, as a child he also was taught English as a personal decision by his family. He speaks of an experience when his teacher, knowing that he spoke English, spoke to him in English, although this was forbidden under the rules of the class room. As Lu writes: “Since were not allowed to speak any dialect other than Standard Chinese in the classroom, having my teacher speak English to me in class made English an official language of the classroom. I began to take pride in my ability to speak it.” (438) Lu thus identifies an immediate difference that was made between he and his classmates because of language. He spoke with the teacher in English, and this made him different from the rest of his classmates. Lu, however, does not view this as a negative. The teacher, as the authoritative figure in the classroom had chosen to speak to Lu in a language that others did not understand or did not speak well. This made Lu in some way closer to the dominant social structure of the classroom. Lu suddenly went from another student to a student who now had a different status than his classmates. Lu had become “Other”, but not in a marginalizing sense, because he spoke with the teacher in this language. However, the point is that a difference in language changed the entire social structure of the classroom. The means of communicating between him and his teacher had now transformed into a means of exclusion, whereby the other students who did not know this language suddenly occupied another social space within the classroom, whereas Lu departed from his status as just another one of the students.
Certainly, this may seem like a critique of language. Language causes stigmatizations and allows for individuals to be identified as Others, those that differ from the dominant social group within whatever context. However, language is of course necessary for our social communication and language. To dismiss language as merely a negative phenomenon would be an inappropriate analysis of the problem. Rather, what is crucial is to understand how there is a clear link between language and how we are accepted into social groups and how we are received by others. Language is another key factor, such as race and gender, which altogether make up the social structure of a society, creating divisions while also allowing certain groups to gather together according to their perceived “belongingness.” Language is a tool of discrimination, as much as it is a tool of communication.
In this regard, it becomes crucial to be aware of the power of language and the dominant role it has in shaping social life. When we understand that language may shape our view of others, perhaps on an unconscious level, we immediately become aware of the discriminatory power of language. In other words, the problem of multilingualism or linguistic differences is ultimately a social problem: it deals with how social norms are accepted or formatted. When we reflect upon language, we cannot divorce language from the greater social context in which it appears, for language basically creates this social context, it allows social normativities and also differences from these normativities to be created.
Lu, Min-Zhan, “From Silence to Words: Writing as Struggle”, College English, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Apr., 1987), pp. 437-448.
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