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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