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Languages and Identity: Many Threads in the Same Fabric

A Story of Belonging and Separation

The first time I left my home country of Spain, I travelled to France to work as a teaching assistant at a lycée privé in a small town in the French Massif Central. It was a medieval city peppered with black stone churches and a gothic cathedral that reminded me of the white stones of my medieval home town. My mother tongue, Spanish, led me to meet with other Spaniards in the town very quickly. That quick "Spanish connection" helped me feel like I belonged there by the mere fact that individuals of my tribe had settled in the same place. Over time, I needed less of my common language fix as I created my own space in that foreign black-stoned town. I met a new tribe, expats from all nationalities, including local colleagues with the same passion for education as me. My language started to evolve towards French with a Spanish accent that created an experience of the world anew. Where aperitivo used to mean olives and wine, now apéritif represented cornichons and charcuterie.

My identity was morphing as I adopted new traditions that enriched me as new words became part of my new vocabulary. Untranslatable concepts were experienced through the lens of another language, culture, and mindset. Even if a translation was available through my mother tongue, these new concepts carried no meaning for my Spanish mind. These words were French and existed only in French because they were "real" in French.

Yet, my Spanish accent often created a separation between myself and the natives. They had a preconceived image of me due to the intonation of my sentences. My harsher musicality evoked in them symbols of laziness or ‘party animals’ despite my industrious and eremite ways. They didn't attempt to bridge the cognitive dissonance and treated me as an outsider. From the moment I spoke and rolled my "r"s, my fate was sealed.

Language and Identity

How does the language you are born into determine your identity?

Language is intrinsic to a culture. It is the expression of an individual and shared mindset. So, the answer to the question above would be that language completely determines your identity.

Whether we reflect upon it or not, our language is part of our identity. It shapes us. It shapes our thinking, mental imagery, and our shared symbols.

The use of words and phrases impacts individuals' thoughts, character, and personal identity. Individuals create language, and the language creates an individual in return. Language is how we convey our innermost self to each other and across generations. It is through language that we transmit and express our culture, values, and concepts. Language is a vehicle for ideas, thoughts, and feelings.

Much has been said and written about the origin of language, but each theory points to the fact that a language's purpose goes beyond communication. Its purpose is also to express our individuality, identity, and belonging to a group.

Free Expression and Non-Conforming Limitations

Years later, I moved to the second largest city of Ireland, the Rebel City, aka. Cork, at a time when teaching jobs were scarce. I ended up working in a supermarket for a while. Language for me was both an expression of my identity and a source of connection and separation in a new space.

With native English speakers, my English fluency was stiff, graceless, and unyielding. This was how I felt, too. I felt unseen and inadequate, often overcorrected by others. I was looked at through narrow eyes as a sign of ears sharpening to try and understand my apparently incomprehensible gibberish. Needless to say that my English didn't improve despite the well-intentioned corrections. I spoke less and less.

In Cork, the other biggest working group was Eastern Europeans, with whom I would frequently communicate in English. We spoke in a free-form, flowing, and freeing English that encompassed terms like the Slavic profanity kurwa or the Hispanic blessing siesta. We had a lengthy list of unruly ways to communicate in English. Back then, I used to think that my pure, rule-compliant English got worse. I stopped using the "s" at the end of the third person present tense. It passed into oblivion. I needed to make some irregular past participles regular to be easily understood. Had we been natives, our ways would have made the Annals of Language and been considered exceptions to the rule or implemented as ways to communicate more effectively, but we were not native. We were outsiders, so our ways had to be curtailed. Despite the lack of correctness, my expression became freeing and expansive with these non-native speakers and not once did I feel inadequate or unseen.

The Real Esperanto

The Esperanto language is the world's most widely spoken artificially constructed language. Created by L. L. Zamenhof in 1887, it was intended to be a universal second language for international communication.

As much as I love the idea behind Esperanto, I, unfortunately, find it entirely misguided.

Every language in the world has evolved by adopting and integrating words from other languages. Humans are nomadic, and the fact is we have lived as nomads for 99% of our history. A consequence of this mobile nature is that our languages, which travel with us, have been morphing. They have merged and been influenced by a range of other languages we encounter throughout our journeys.

Dictionaries, the collection of words as they belong to a language at a specific time, are pretty recent, around since the seventeenth century. Formally setting a language is linked to colonization as one of its goals was to teach the colonized people the "right" way to use a language. A noble goal, right? That taught version of the language was never originally intended to merge with local languages. God forbid the "correct" version of the language would mix with uncivilized, barbaric tongues! It was meant to supplant the original language but ended up becoming a veneer. But over time, the covering chips and fades, showing what is underneath, and creating a different, new thing, just as language is organically supposed to.

Before we, Western Europeans, started "exporting" and forcing our languages on to other people, our tongues welcomed different terms. However, throughout history, we have accepted terms from different languages and neighbouring groups that we considered equals. Look at English as an example. Lisele Mueller, German-born, American poet and translator, writes about English in her article, Two Strains:

It's commonplace, of course, that English is the richest European language, and that it got that way because of a series of invaders into the British Isles, who left successive layers of language. English words remind us of the presence of Celts, Scots, Romans and Danes, but their two dominant strains derive from the 5th-century invasions of the Angles and Saxons, two Germanic tribes, and the conquest by the French-speaking Normans in the 11th century. The amalgam makes English both less "pure" and more abundant than other languages; compare the sizes of dictionaries.

In many areas, we have virtually a dual language, with words from both strains interchangeable as to meaning, though not necessarily "feeling" or "flavour". Because of custom and convenience, I will refer to the two strains as "Germanic"; (i.e., Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian) and "Latinate".

What would happen if we gate-kept our native language less and let go of our need to control other people's speech? Can you imagine if we embraced language as a tool for connection and communication as opposed to using it as a mechanism to exert power over others? Rather than a weapon of separation or control, what if we embraced other people's self-expression?

I believe communication wouldn't falter if we embraced ‘foreign’ terms relevant to the speaker and part of their background. Communication goes beyond words. It involves non-verbal communication and other more subtle and intuitive cues.

An integral part of effective, successful communication is the eagerness to understand the other person and the willingness to try and be understood.

The "if you are in this country, you have to speak its language" is the epitome of a delusional imperialist mindset. The assumption that English is the "lingua franca" par excellence leads to the speaker feeling entitled to be communicated exclusively in that language. When we let go of outdated, obsolete, and unsustainable imperialist ideas, we understand how both entities in communication are equals. There is a joint responsibility during any exchange, and regardless of the location, for the communication to be successful. Both parties are responsible for making themselves understood, and each person should assume that some clarification may be required. Additionally, they must attempt to understand the other party without correcting the other's speech.

Note: Everyone is equal regardless of the land they inhabit. There is no hierarchy in regards to "native" or "native language" because "what is a 'native language' in relation to a stretch of land after all?"

Language may be connected to a piece of land, yes, but it stems from the humans inhabiting a specific area and expressing their experience of it with words. Language doesn't sprout from the land as an extrinsic thing. If we allow organic expression that encompasses merging and permeability again, we will organically reach and create our own, real "Esperanto."

A language is an ever-evolving tool. It is as alive as the humans using it, and just like humans, it cannot be suppressed endlessly. A language, like water, will break any man-made banks, over and over.

"Language is a living thing. We can feel it changing. Parts of it become old: they drop off and are forgotten. New pieces bud out, spread into leaves, and become big branches, proliferating." Gilbert Highet

María is an Embodied Language coach, multilingual poet and poetry therapy practitioner in training who works with social impact entrepreneurs, artists, immigrants/ expatriates to (re)learn a non-native language and express themselves confidently and authentically in that language.


Article was originally published in our Sept/Oct 2021 issue of SOULACY

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