Influence of Language and Community

Hello, my name isâÂ?¦ Where is the bathroom, please? Thank you. If one was to learn a second language, one will hear these commonly-used phrases often. They are used on a regular basis and are needed to be known to order to function within a foreign environment. However, that is not the most important part of learning a new language. Language is not only a medium to find out where the bathroom is or to show gratitude, but an intrinsic means to one’s identity. People not only communicate with each other through language, but they express themselves through words. Ultimately, thinking is being. Even as one reads through this essay, s/he is assimilating words in the English language and processing them depending on their mother tongue in which they think; which may or not be English.

Personal development occurs through the environment directly around someone. Social reproduction is grounded in social interaction with other people – interaction that occurs through mediums such as visual and oral communications. Language is the means by which both mediums are manifested; even those who cannot hear or speak can communicate in sign language, if need be. Whatever the actual manifestation of the medium, it still has a structured language, with specific rules and syntax, which allows for the person to express his/herself and what it is that might be needed. Regardless of the language and/or expression which that languages takes form in, one needs language to be someone.

America has been known as a giant melting pot since the beginning of the 20th century, where immigrants flooded Ellis Island for a chance at freedom. This mix of various cultures has left a standing impression on foreign-born citizens. Language impacts a variety of nationalities, however, the same underlying concept stands – one’s native tongue is more familiar and more easily understood. Whether one is Asian, African or European, the barriers between themselves and the English language exists as the same struggle throughout.

The commonly accepted, or adopted, language in the U.S. is English. The Constitution of our country was written in this language along with the laws that are still currently in place. It is the language of the people. However, various communities throughout the country have recognized other languages as a means to communicate throughout. In the last quarter of a century, Spanish has become a second language mostly because of the steady immigration increase of Spanish speaking people. This increase in the Spanish speaking population has risen so high that Spanish is sometimes considered an un-official second language in many parts of the United States especially New Mexico and Florida. The unofficial adoption of Spanish as a second language occurs with the Spanish culture being reinstated, or affirmed in homes where people do not want to lose their identity.

Ken Hale, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology states “[a]s languages disappear, cultures die. The world becomes inherently a less interesting place, but we also sacrifice raw knowledge and the intellectual achievements of millennia.” This being the case, it is not hard to see why the Spanish language is being used more frequently within the U.S. The example of the Spanish speaking population is only one of many other cultures; however, it is the mere number of the Spanish speaking population which contributed to a large Spanish speaking population.

Unsafe is how Richard Rodriguez viewed the American English language. In his “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood,” Rodriguez describes growing up speaking Spanish. He specifically identifies language and identity within the piece. His sense of security and reassurance of himself were both deeply affected by his language. Growing up, Rodriguez always heard Spanish being spoken in the house by his immigrant parents. His parents only spoke English in public with a hesitant and choppy manner.

Rodriguez remarks of this shame when he was younger. “(…) It was more troubling to hear my parents speaking in public: their high-whining vowels and guttural consonants; their sentences that got stuck with ‘eh’ and ‘ah’ sounds; the confused syntax; the hesitant rhythm of sounds so different from the way gringos [Americans] spoke.” At first, it was not so much a shame of the way his parents spoke, but a shame for them and the way they spoke. As he progressed in his knowledge of English, he became more and more detached from his parents and his family. Mr. Rodriguez remarks how Spanish was his security because it gave him a sense of identity. He knew that whenever he heard those Spanish sounds that the was somebody, that he was wanted.

“My parents would say something to me and I would feel embraced by the sounds of their words. Those sounds said: I am speaking with ease in Spanish. I am addressing you in words I never use with los gringos. I recognize you as someone special, close, like no one outside. You belong with us. In the family, Ricardo”.

Spanish meant safety, security and his identity, a means to himself. He knew that he wasn’t a gringo, that he was that special Ricardo, a Mexican. He lost a bit of himself when he went to school and wasn’t able to perform as well as the other kids. His poor knowledge of English was a hindrance that inhibited his true personality. After he started using English, he felt he had lost a part of his identity. As he lost the ease of Spanish, he lost the closeness he had with his parents. His difficulty in making his parents understand a point he was trying to make in English led to him giving up on conversation with them altogether – something that Ricardo would never had done.

As we children learned more and more English, we shared fewer and fewer words with our parents. Sentences needed to be spoken slowly when one of us addressed our mother or father. Often the parent wouldn’t understand. The child would need to repeat himself. Still the parent misunderstood. The young voice, frustrated, would end up saying, “Never mind” – the subject was closed.

The subject was closed, and the identities were lost. A changed language meant a changed personality, a change in one’s identity. Mr. Rodriguez went from being Ricardo to becoming Richard, all because of a change in language.

As Ken Hale earlier implied, culture and language are intrinsically related. In ChinaTown, one may find that people of Chinese nationality form communities within neighborhoods. Most of the time, only Chinese is spoken and utilized on a daily basis. Businesses are run using their native tongue most likely because the majority of the people in that neighborhood/community speak it. Their language defines their identity – other than the similarities in physical attributes. It is what brings these people together. There is tradition in their neighborhood, something many fear they will lose when in the U.S.

However, language can be interpreted in various ways. Even silence is defined as a form of language. Just as the concept of cold is merely the absence of heat, so is silence merely the absence of audible sound in language; it does not mean that a message is not being conveyed. This point is shown in Maxine Hong Kingston’s essay “The Language of Silence,” one of the four essays studied for this paper. In her essay, Maxine recalls her childhood as a Chinese girl who lived in America and had to go among English speaking people. She relates how she was silent the first time she had to speak English as a standard for other Chinese girls in her school. Many where silent and as a result, did not do well in school.

Why they were silent is left up to the reader to really discern, even though the implication is clear. As Chinese children, they never had to know any other language, thus their knowledge was limited to Chinese. This contributed to a limitation of their identity. They identified with their Chinese heritage and nationality, not to their American identity – either as American residents or natural born American citizens. She wonders in her essay “how could the American ‘I,’ assuredly wearing a hat like the Chinese, have only three strokes, the middle so straight?”

Children, as pliable as they may be, and even with their ability to ‘bounce back’ when faced with new and strange situations, become confused when they have to make a transition from what they feel is safe to that which is unsafe. They tend to become mute, and retreat into themselves, similar to what Maxine and the other Chinese girls did. Being exposed to the American language so suddenly, and being expected to communicate freely and on a regular basis in English, left them mute and dumb, not being able to even shake their heads yes or no. This is the confusion of identity that comes with the confusion of language.

However, this silence only lasted in the classroom, “They screamed and yelled during recess, when there were no rules; they had fist fights.” They found voices in Chinese school because it was who they were – Chinese girls. They knew that when speaking Chinese they were being true to whom they were, and so it was easier. They did not have to become somebody else to communicate, taking on a language that was associated with a culture that was so foreign to theirs; a culture and language that was unsafe.

To some, speaking English changes their life. However, one’s name and how they are referred to has also has a deep impact on one’s attitude towards language. In “African and American,” Ellen Goodman discusses how the terms used to denote people with darker skin has changed over time from “Negro” to “black” and now to “African American.” This may not seem like a big deal, as terms for many things are constantly changing over time, but the significance of this change is immense.
The words one uses to describe themselves has a deep underlying effect on how perceives him/herself, as well as the way other people perceive them. Goodman claims that even though the term African-American is not precise enough to denote cultures “as diverse as the Kikuyu and the Bakuba,” it makes emotional sense. “The questionâÂ?¦isn’t whether this name change makes genetic or ethnic sense, but whether it makes emotional sense. And it does.” The emotional sense that it makes is integral to the ‘black’ community because it gives them a title. Once again, language is in play to define identity. It defines them according to their historical heritage, and their status now: they are from Africa, and now they are American. Ellen claims that âÂ?¦African American sounds right. It’s a name that resonates of cultural history, a name that reflects the real desire to teach children that “I am Somebody.” A name that reaches back past slavery and out past the limits of an embattled city block for that lesson.

When it comes to race, there are two most commonly used adjectives: black and white. They are used to describe people whose colors fall in between those two extremes. They are not precise adjectives since black can be used to describe someone whose skin color is really brown, and white can be used to describe someone who is pink. Due to the way that language develops on a social level, these two adjectives are now used, despite their lack of accuracy.

In Updike’s “Coloring Lessons,” this point is made crystal clear. David Updike, who is in a multi-racial marriage, writes of how he has had to use language to deal with his four year old son’s understanding of race and identity. His son, who is still in the primary stages of social reproduction, and is just beginning to learn about social values, identifies people according to the color in which he sees them. He will say that a person is pink, when others may opt for the more commonly used white, and the same with those of darker pigmentation; he may call a ‘black’ person brown. In “Coloring Lessons,” Updike tries to get his son to identify people with something other than an adjective of color, but his son refuses:

“Do you have to call him ‘brown boy’? Why don’t you just say, ‘That tall boy’ or ‘the boy with the blue hat’ or ‘the boy in the green sweatshirt?'” He mulled over my suggestion, but then rejected it. “No,” he said firmly. “He’s brown.”

Wesley, David’s son, could not conceive of using any other adjectives to identify the brown boy except for ‘brown boy.’ It was simple, and to the point, as well as being more than enough to clearly identify just who the boy was. He wasn’t white, he wasn’t Chinese, or ‘black,’ he was brown. What does “brown” mean? When used in the context that Wesley used it in, it mean that the boy had a brown complexion. That’s who that boy was, and the language of colors identified him precisely and clearly so that all those who wanted to spot him in the crowd could.

David concluded that using white or black to describe people is outdated; that it is thinking in binary terms:
âÂ?¦not suggesting the terms be abandoned, tossed onto the scrap heap of language with other discarded words – just that they are used too easily and often and should be traded in, occasionally, for words that admit that issues of race and ethnicity are more complicated than these monosyllables imply.

Issues of race and ethnicity are more complicated than monosyllables can imply, but it is still language that is the indicator of such issues regardless of their complexity. Sometimes, the issues are as simple as black, white, pink or brown, and sometimes they are more complex like African-American and gringos. The word used is the key to the identity of the person. Whether a complex or simple word is used, it is still an identification tool – the simple is used for a broad identification, while the more complex can be used for the individualized identification.

Language is a binding element among humans. When one speaks the same language, a bond exists there that is almost as old as that civilization itself. Walking the streets of Europe, a Spanish- speaking person will be more than ecstatic to find another with whom to exchange pleasantries and idioms. This is the magic of language – the fact that it binds and familiarizes.

Maxine Kingston related the usage of language (or lack thereof) with being Chinese: “The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl.” Because she, as a Chinese girl, was silent, she could only assume that silence was an indicator of someone being Chinese. It’s a funny thing, identity. Even funnier is the fact that so much of a person’s identity literally ‘hangs on someone’s words,’ whether it’s words that they speak, or the title/name that is given to them.

Ellen Goodman claims that “[a] name is identity, a handle on consciousness, a public and collective description of who you are.” She has ‘hit it on the nail.’ Through language one can directly, and indirectly, by speaking or giving him/herself a name/title, give a public and collective description of who s/he is. All the essays agree with the idea of language being closely related to one’s culture and identity. It is through language that one can either assimilate, or separate him/herself from the public. When asked who you are, do you have the right words to say “I AM SOMEBODY?”

Conference of Education Systems Chief Executive Officers (2005). Understanding racism. Retrieved on March 9, 2005 from
Davis, W. (1999) ‘Vanishing cultures’, National Geographic, vol. 196, no. 2.

Goodman, Ellen (1998). African and American. Goshgarian, Gary ed. Exploring language (pp. 282-285). New York: Longman
Kingston, Maxine Hong (1998). Language of Silence. Goshgarian, Gary ed. Exploring language (pp. 43-48). New York: Longman
Rodriguez, Richard (1998). Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood. Goshgarian, Gary ed. Exploring language (pp. 266-275). New York: Longman
Updike, David (1998). Coloring Lessons. Goshgarian, Gary ed. Exploring language (pp. 277-279). New York: Longman

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