Friday, May 3, 2013

Language and Identity

Our very first contact with language begins while we are still within our mother’s womb. Studies indicate that by sixteen weeks, an unborn infant is “particularly receptive to its mother’s voice”. It is not until 20 to 24 weeks that the same infant recognizes it’s father’s voice. Once we are born, our first and most intense contact with language continues being our mother. The songs she sings and the coos she emits to soothe us, put us to sleep, form our very first steps on the road to language acquisition. It is no wonder, then, that we often refer to our first language as our mother tongue.

After our mother, our language learning continues in our immediate and extended family and, later, in school.  Thus, we grow up and the oral traditions that are handed to us by way of songs, fairy tales, stories our parents, grandparents and teachers tell us become intrinsically intertwined with who we are. The basis of our becoming  patriots - or not, religious - or not, and a whole plethora of other things begins in our mother’s womb and then extends outwards. Our cultural influences are also mediated by language more often than not.  All of those times my parents took us to the park to eat watermelon were influenced by language. My dad would walk in with a watermelon and ask who wanted to go to the park. Although we knew what was coming because of that large green object under his arm, it was the words “Let’s go!” that put everything in motion. My mother would gather up a large knife, the salt shaker and some old newspapers, and off we would go.

The silly songs that my father would sing (my mother always said that she was tone deaf), like “Old Joe Clark” were also fundamental. “Old Joe Clark, he had a hen...” formed part of my early indoctrination into what music is. It and “Soldier’s Joy” are still two of my favorite songs.

The same could be said about our city’s Fourth of July Celebrations. They too were mediated by language. We were taught to recognize our nation’s symbols meant through the use of language, and that teaching was reinforced by language when we recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. (We also recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, in spite of the First Amendment.) We were taught history through both oral story telling and reading our textbooks. Without language, we would have not known why or what we were celebrating. It had been told to us. We might have learned to question the official narrative later, but, as children, we believed what we were told – and language was the instrument for telling us, for explaining the meanings of the songs, symbols and images.

And what happens if we throw another language into the mix?  That  may well depend upon how old we are when another language is introduced. Although I was always interested in languages as a young child (A friend of mine and I used to utter unintelligible sounds to each other in grade school, pretending that we were speaking some other language), by the time I began studying Spanish in high school, my cultural identity was already firmly established. American by birth, Southerner by the grace of God. Even though my “self-identity” has shifted and expanded as I have learned other languages and have become assimilated into other cultures – I lived in Mexico for three years, Canada for almost a year and have been in Brazil now for a total of seven and a half years, at the end of the day, I still say “y’all” and speak with a drawl. Although I have learned to appreciate and to truly love music from around the world – AfroPop, Andean folk music, samba, la nueva canción, among others, a good country song still makes me homesick and, for however politically incorrect it might be, the sound of “Dixie” still stirs my blood. (Not too worry, my leftist friends. “The Internationale” does the same trick for me.)  These are all the sounds of my childhood, of my roots.

For my children, the experience has been very different. I will leave their experience for a future article. After all, Jack and Melissa, at ages five and three, are still very much forming their identities. Georgia, at age 21, has established her identity, but her experience is also different from Jack and Melissa’s.

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