Does Language Define Us?

How can we define what makes a cultural identity unique? Language has historically been an aspect of cultural identity. The language we speak can indicate and reveal a lot of information about our country of origin. As the world moves towards an English speaking homogeny, where does that leave language as a means of identity?

I recently returned home from a trip to Iceland. Not too long ago, when I was a teenager, I would travel abroad and immediately be identified as American, Australian or British, simply because I spoke English. While in Iceland this past weekend, I noticed that speaking English no longer defines my country of origin. Speaking English only revealed that I was not Icelandic. Foreign travelers can wear their culture with pride, acting as ambassadors of their homeland while they speak their language. But strolling through downtown Reykjavik and speaking English was not enough for me to express my culture. No one knew if I was American, French, Italian, or South African.

Near me on my flight to Iceland, an Asian-American man spoke perfect English to a flight attendant and was asked what part of Asia he was from. It was clear to me by his speech that he was American. He looked stunned and responded by asking, “Can’t you tell that I’m American? I am speaking English!”

This past year I taught English as a Second Language to adult learners from all over the world. For them it was not an extra-curricular activity, but rather a requirement. As the world struggles to learn English as a second language, we can see them struggle with the pros and cons of making this language shift. But what are the ramifications for those of us who already speak English as our native tongue? Most of the world thinks we have it easy. We are not asked to forfeit our own language, or be forced to accept the inevitability of acquiring second language skills.

I think the positive affects of an English-speaking world on native speakers are more obvious than the negative affects. We are spared the time, effort and financial burden of learning a required second language. We have advantages in business and international teaching jobs. We are never accused of having an accent. If we cannot be understood, it is never our fault, because we speak English. We get through life never having to translate. Instructions, movies, important speeches and international conversations are presented in our language. The biggest inconvenience for us, is dealing with foreign accents, and even that to many people is not inconvenient at all.

So what are the cons of an English world for English speakers? I think one major con is the loss of a unique cultural identifier. In my ESL classroom Spanish students could go off to the side and whisper in Spanish, then answer me in English. Turkish students held private conversations in the back corner, and then easily switched to English when other students walked by. The whole class could disguise themselves in a cryptic language, while my fellow teachers and I were confined to one language with no escape. We speak the language of no secrets. Sometimes us teachers would resort to slang, idioms and thick New York accents, knowing the students could not understand, just to have something to call our own. It was the only way to have a private language to retreat to.

Many Americans, including myself, have acquired skill in a second language, but we are all over the map in what languages we speak. I rarely find other Americans who speak Italian, and when I do, we are so surrounded by English, that it is easier to simply converse in English.

Overall, I think the pros of an English-speaking world outweigh the cons for all parties involved. Cross-cultural communication happens more and more. Travel is less intimidating now that language barriers are becoming less and less of an issue. But the question of cultural identity is not one that should be taken in stride. Preserving ones cultural identity is challenged as the world learns the same language, and we are left with the task of juxtaposing the desire to speak to the world, with our desires to have a language and culture to call our own.

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