Thursday, June 22, 2006

On Language and Identity

This post is in response to Lotus's post, which raises some interesting questions regarding the importance of language. Her post also talks about an interesting book, The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic, which is now on my list of books to read.

Language, I believe, is part of a person's expression of a place; it helps to show the veracity of one's claim that one belongs to a place. Language is part of one's identity. It is difficult to feel connected to a place whose language one does not speak. Now what to do with immigrants who come with their own set of language, of identity. To feel connected to the new place, they'll need to learn its language, but by so doing they grow farther and farther away from their native identity. What is the effect of this? What does it feel like to no longer be what you have always been? Ugresic's books sounds like it will provide an insightful answer to these questions.

My sister recently came back from Nigeria, and I noticed how her mannerisms, her words, and thinking were so "Nigerian." I was so jealous. I felt like she was more authentically Nigerian, and I longed for home so severely. Hearing my sister sound more Nigerian, I can finally understand my mom's fear that I might be slowly forgetting my native tongue. I fear that I am becoming less and less Nigerian. It is not a good feeling—it is like I am losing myself, and my past seems more hazy because it is so different from my now. Is it a wonder then that the Chinese, for example, have their own “towns” in the US? Is this—creating “towns”— the only way to maintain one’s native identity while acquiring a different one? For a world that is so culturally diverse, why does it seem that the road to success seems antagonistic to diversity?

As I noted on Lotus' blog, her post reminds me of Jamaica Kincaid's words in her book "A small place," which goes, "For the language of the criminal can only contain the goodness of the criminal's deeds... [it] can explain and express the deed only from the criminal's point of view." It seems, then, that a language is biased towards the native, so it makes sense that conquerors would want their colonies to speak their language, as a way of eliciting, in the colonies, behavior and worldview that sees the "sense" in a conqueror's actions.

Language can be like an identification card that confers certain attributes and mentality to its speaker. Just watch a bi-lingual or multi-lingual person speak to different people; s/he acts in ways that are consistent and unique to the particular language he or she is speaking at any given moment. To rob a person of his or her language is to deny him or her full expression of the national identity that comes with that language. A Nigerian who does not speak any Nigerian language is a foreigner with Nigerian parents--at least this would be the emotional world of such a person.

It seems inevitable to be sucked into the black hole of the dominant culture, but the inevitability is only because we have allowed it. Our diversity ensures differential response to a given situation, and contrary to today's view, this is a good thing.

It is amazing how a book can get you to think and to develop some convictions. I do want my children to maintain their Nigerian roots. For that to happen, however, I have to be grounded in it as well, and this is so challenging especially when I am in a place where very few people speak my language. But to let go of said language is to let go of myself. Like my sister, I just have to keep going home to Nigeria, to remind myself of where I am from and who I am, even as I take on new identities.

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At 22/6/06 4:18 PM, Blogger Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Rosemary!

I was delighted to find this post on your blog today. Language is just one of the issues Dubravka Ugresic touched on in her wonderful book, but it's the one I picked up on the most because, having a native tongue other than English, I could relate to her characters and what it might feel like to lose that avenue of expression. Like you so very correctly point out, language is synonymous with identity, take somone's language away and you have one very confused person. Language is also expression, losing it is akin to losing one's voice.

Like you, I, too, worry that as I get more and more proficient with the Canadian way of doing things and using Canadian-English, there will be the slow erosion of my Indian identity, guess what will happen eventually is that I will become a part of that big group known as hyphenated-Canadians, in particular, an Indian-Canadian! ;)

Thank you for this wonderful post on language and identity. It provided me with much food for thought.

At 24/6/06 3:26 AM, Blogger Susan Abraham said...

Dearest Rosemary,
Thank you for stopping by and your beautiful birthday wishes to me personally.
All I can offer is this interesting thought that applies to me personally as regarding my heritage and perhaps, no one else at all.
My mother is Punjabi from Punjab in father is Malayalee from South India. Both were teachers when they had me. They spoke to me in English from day one. Yet, I am a Malaysian citizen. Malay is our national language; we learnt it in school. Yet I miss it terribly when I'm away...speak it as often as I like and often see it in the form of nostalgia. I view the Hindi dialects (from my mother) as I would see any other European language. English was my mother tongue and yet I am not English.
Today, it is this adopted language that I find complete fulfillment and joy as a writer and a human being no matter where I'm travelling. It fulfills and supports me in every way. Me and the English language. We can go anywhere together and i would be in bliss. Yet, I don't feel I'm lacking for anything that concerns my own heritage. I have learnt some HIndi and will learn more. I will catch up. But english and me. We have dreams and ambitions. We're a team. We have something special going.

I suppose this is because I have always seen myself as a child of the universe in its completeness, all as one, and that the whole universe could be my plaground.
I guess for me, even language as defining the situation of roots and culture is simply at the end of the day, what the heart craves.
lots of love

At 30/6/06 12:34 PM, Blogger Rosemary Esehagu said...

Hello, Lotus.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It is a good thing, in the midst of all this cultural diversity, that our identity is, gratefully, a relatively fluid concept. Our core selves and our outer or presenting selves can work out a compromise to ensure living/adapting successfully in whatever world we find ourselves, without losing ourselves.

Hello, Susan.
Thank you for your interesting comment. I agree with your saying that "even language as defining the situation of roots and culture is simply at the end of the day, what the heart craves."
The importance and power of any particular language on one's life and the extent to which it determines one's identity is going to be an individual thing, dependent on other factors in one's childhood and background. What each heart craves for is naturally going to be different, but there is a common thread. Language (regardless of which) as playing a part in identity is evident even in your comment.

Ladies, thank you for your comments. I have been away, again, but I am back now. I missed reading your blogs, and I shall hop on over soon.

At 9/7/06 7:23 PM, Blogger psesito said...

"it makes sense that conquerors would want their colonies to speak their language".

Correct, but not always true - at least, not always the first choice.

The Spanish language arrived in America through the Spaniard conquerors, but the natives, called 'indios,' generally were not taught Spanish. The 'indios' were not allowed to speak the same language as their 'superiors'.

Nonetheless, this strategy of segregation showed not to be effective. The conquerors had to impose the Spanish language and relegate the Amerindian languages to an unprivileged position. In this way, Spaniards were able to impose their ideas more successfully.

At 10/7/06 6:47 PM, Blogger Rosemary Esehagu said...

Hello, Psesito.

Thank you for your comment, which made my words quite a bit more complete. It is not surprising that the initial inclination would be to deny a language, in order to claim some sort of superiority.

Psesito, I visited your site. I find it interesting that some of your posts are in Spanish while others are in English. I don't think I've seen anyone else who has chosen to blog in two languages. Nice.

At 15/7/06 10:08 AM, Anonymous Divine Calm said...

It's amazing to me how often my Panamanian boyfriend--who has been studying English since he was a little boy and who has lived in the U.S. for 8 years--doesn't know what I am saying. Thankfully he always asks when he doesn't know a phrase. But at the same time, I don't want him to lose his Panamanian roots and accent. He's in international consulting, so being of more than one culture is a bonus.

By the way, I love Jamaica Kincaid's Autobiography of a Mother. I should check out her other books.

At 16/7/06 12:29 AM, Blogger Rosemary Esehagu said...

Hello, Divine Calm. I think it is great that you're interested in maintaining his Panamanian roots and accent. Personally, one of the sure ways someone can excite my irritation is when he or she, as a compliment, says, "Oh, you barely have an accent," as if my Nigerian accent were an affliction that he or she was glad I was being cured of. I know I have lost the full depth of my accent; I suppose that is why I am quite protective of its remains.

I love Jamaica Kincaid; I love her ability to use words to express the seemingly inexpressible. She can paint so well a precise and accurate picture of even the vaguest emotion or idea. I suggest Annie John, if you are looking for another good book of hers to read.

At 19/7/06 9:41 PM, Anonymous Rose DesRochers said...

Hi, Rosemary, I appologize if my post is short. I’m moving in a few days and still have a great deal to do. Thank you for commenting on my blog. I just wanted to add to your topic that I think it’s important to never loose touch of your heritage. It is who you are.


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