Language and Identity: the Construction of the Self
When it comes to language, one of the first words that comes to mind is communication. However, language is also an important part of one's identity and is required for all aspects of interacting with the surrounding world. Identity is what one projects into the world and how one wants to be perceived by others. Moreover, identity formation requires a certain level of awareness as it involves individuals to make a conscious decision that impacts a change in their identity. Family, social interactions with peers, and geographic location are three aspects that show a correlation between language and identity throughout one’s life. This article will discuss this relationship and provide some examples of identity in language use to demonstrate how identity is not static but rather changes over time as a person’s language evolves.
Family Influence on Language and Identity
Family plays the most important role in the development of a child’s linguistic skills. These skills are influenced by the positive verbal input children receive from their parents in their home environment. According to psychologist Catherine Snow (1972), the speech children hear spoken around them is their sole source of information about that language (p. 549). As children grow, they learn their mother tongue – their first language – which gives them the ability to communicate with their parents. Given the amount of time children spend interacting with their parents on a regular basis, it is no surprise that, by transmitting speech skills targeted to develop their own form of communication, parents play a critical role in their children's language development. However, developmental psycholinguists have assumed that, in reality, children hear just a random sample of adult utterances, characterized by all the stutters, mistakes, garbles, inconsistencies, and complexities which are common in adults’ speech to other adults (Snow, 1972). In other words, children are largely exposed to various kinds of speech in a home environment. This process makes them perceptive to everything and, by nature, children are encouraged to imitate their parents’ behaviour, particularly in speech. That is the reason why the mother tongue has a significant impact on the personality and psychological development of an individual: it shapes their distinct identity through childhood, when young speakers are most closely connected with their parents.
Mother tongue is also an important part of a child’s culture, identity, and beliefs. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “our values, beliefs and identity are embedded within language” (Farhat, 2018). This implies how the importance of culture is in determining how a person is defined. One's values and beliefs have a significant impact on how they think, behave and see the world. Rovira (2008) states "Language is intrinsic to the expression of culture" (p. 66) implying that it is through expressed language that culture and values are transmitted. There is a strong connection between an individual’s mother tongue and their culture, yet if children do not speak their parents' language, it might be difficult to identify with their roots. In order to better understand this concept, an example is provided below.
According to a case study done by Thomas and Cao (1999), the Linh Cao family, of Vietnamese and Chinese descent, demonstrates how a three-generation family can invoke identity changes. The Cao family immigrated to the U.S. in 1979 from Vietnam due to political and economic instability. While the grandparents spoke Hainanese (a Chinese dialect) and Vietnamese, the father spoke Hainanese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and a little English. The mother spoke Vietnamese, Hainanese, and very limited English. With these premises, it is interesting to analyze the impact of such a situation on the children. In fact, the age gaps between the children resulted in considerable differences regarding their language experiences. Linh was born in Vietnam and her first language was Hainanese, which she speaks very little of now. She studied Mandarin when she first started school, but following the Communist takeover in Vietnam 1975, Linh had to learn how to read and write Vietnamese. In fact, the Vietnamese government sought to eliminate any Chinese influence and demanded that all Chinese schools in Vietnam teach Vietnamese. Her sister who is one year younger speaks Vietnamese fairly well and has recently improved her Mandarin and Hainanese, even though she prefers English. Their two younger siblings, on the other hand, were two and three years old when they arrived in the U.S. and are now completely fluent in English, but their Vietnamese vocabulary is severely limited and, particularly when communicating with their parents, their conversation is restricted to a “yes/no” dialogue. On the contrary, the older siblings are able to converse with their mother in Vietnamese with ease, but they occasionally get stuck when they have forgotten a specific word or expression. When this happens, their mom offers to assist them as she understands what they are trying to say. Based on this study, it is evident that when a child shifts to a common language spoken outside the home environment, maintaining communication within an immigrant family becomes challenging if the language of origin is not preserved. As children mature, it is important to observe the dynamics of this transition as speakers clarify their values and gain a sense of coherence in their identities.
Identity Development in Adolescence
As adolescents go through changes in their language development, they become more aware of how others perceive them because acceptance by a peer group becomes extremely important. This awareness often affects the way one uses language, specifically how one modifies speech patterns in order to achieve a particular social standing within their peer group (Durkin & Conti-Ramsden, 2007). As a matter of fact, adolescents are often responsible for linguistic innovations and modifications, some of which are built into the general structure of language over time. This is especially true at the lexical level, since young people are generally creative with language and like to borrow new words from other languages and even from other jargons – a specific type of language used by a particular group or profession.
Slang is another type of informal language typically spoken by adolescents within social groups. For example, young speakers might use the words awesome, sick or wicked to mean “really good.” The use of slang represents how young people express what is going on in society and how they are responding to their surroundings, where informal communication is easier than using formal language. Young people speak differently than adults do. Some modifications that occur in their language, such as alterations in speech or grammar, persist, while others diminish over time. When these changes stay, we notice a shift in language. According to Fuller (2007), the fact that adolescents have a specific language makes it easier for them to connect with other adolescents and helps build self-confidence (p. 106). These young people develop a distinctive way of speaking that effectively communicates who they are and how they respond to the social influences they encounter. This clearly demonstrates how language choice creates a powerful bond between social identification and group unity. It is no wonder that as adolescents struggle to find their way in the adult world, their need to be accepted by their peers, displayed by their use of language, makes it simpler for them to blend in and establish a specific identity.
The Influence of Geographic Location on Identity
Numerous studies have found out that geographic location has a significant impact on language variety and dialect emergence. That is, when speakers of the same group are geographically apart, they are more likely to use language differently. According to Abdulfattah and Mansour (2017), all languages have dialectical variations. These dialects can differ in phonology, morphology, spelling, vocabulary, and syntax from the standard language, but with language continually changing, it may not be obvious to an outsider what is considered to be the true language. Abdulfattah and Mansour claim that linguistic diversity is influenced by one’s geographical background (p. 221). For example, geographic location is an essential factor in the variation of dialects spoken throughout England. In the North East region, for instance, English speakers pronounce bus as /bus/, which differs from Received Pronunciation, which is the accent traditionally associated with education and privilege. Abdulfattah and Mansour write "It is also claimed that location has been essential in the emergence of a new variety of English that came to be known as General American English which is different from the UK varieties" (2017, p. 221). When people immigrated from England to America, they brought their language with them. However, as a result of contact, the spoken language began to change in many ways.
Today, there are many different dialects within both British and American English. An expression attributed to Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw is, 'Two nations divided by a common language.' This quote reinforces the idea that barriers of geographic location become linguistic barriers. These barriers can occur between people who speak the same language but are from different regions of the same country. They may have difficulty understanding each other and this can lead to conflict, frustration, offence, and confusion, all of which block effective communication. If one decides to relocate to a city for work purposes where a different dialect is spoken, that person may encounter misunderstandings and misinterpretations with their colleagues, and as a result, a strain in interpersonal relationships might take place. Furthermore, when dialectical and accent differences occur, the use of slang and regional colloquialisms can lead to more misunderstandings and communication gaps, among other issues. Linguistic struggles can alter an individual’s identity entirely, since language barriers can hinder the flux of sharing ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Because of this, successful communication between people should never be taken for granted.
Language is the main instrument used for communicating with others, but it is also a fundamental part of our identity and is required for all aspects of environmental interaction. In considering the amount of time that parents spend with their children in forming their communicative style and building their character, family is without doubt the most significant factor in children's language development, which contributes to the shaping of their identities. As children mature into adolescents, their identities shift as they become more aware of how their peers perceive them, impacting their language use in such a way as to represent their social standings. Finally, geographic location produces dialect differentiation, which can lead to language barriers, making communication between people who speak the same language difficult. Based on these three factors, one can conclude that identity is never static and varies throughout time as a person’s language evolves in a determined social context.
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