Relation Between Language and Cultural Identity

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 When a person is asked about identity, the most common response that you will get is a name, but an individual’s identity is so much more complex than that. Norton (1997) defined identity as “how people understand their relationship to the outside world, how that relationship is constructed across time and space, and how people understand their possibilities for the future” (Norton, 410). Several factors can affect the development of a person’s identity, one of which is language. It plays a significant and unquantifiable role in the life-long process of building and discovering a person’s identity. In Trevor Noah’s life, language affected the way he sees the world, the way he thinks or feels about something, and the way he develops his values and beliefs.

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Being multilingual, Trevor easily associated himself with other people from a different culture who speaks a different language. The schools that he attended and the neighborhoods where they lived, served as his cultural melting pot. His ability and his environment exposed him to different cultures where he gradually developed his identity. They conquered the fear of difference and mistrust that lingers in their societal norms by fostering cultural understanding and by utilizing the common interests that they have; like listening to hip hop songs and going to youth’s festivity. Trevor’s view of how the world works were affected in a way that language becomes his tool for bridging the gaps between different races.

Moreover, he used his ability to communicate in several languages as his leverage. As a child, he grew up watching Patricia, his mother, use language to their advantage. For instance, his mother’s job and the quality of life that he had. African women can only work in a factory or as a maid during the apartheid period, but Patricia studied the language of their colonizers to obtain a better job. She did not let the unjust system strip her child’s potential. She worked hard to assure that her son will have a better quality of life than the life she had when she was a kid. Another example was the incident where they were falsely accused of being a thief because of their physical attributes. He saw how his mother defended them using language and he also discovered how language deceives people. As stated by Noah, “[l]anguage brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it”(Noah, 49). This resulted in Trevor using language as his stepping stone in the world as he grows.

Finally, the art of communication is what unites a family, a society, and even a nation. Without it, the world will be in complete chaos. This makes communication an essential part of cultural identity (feeling of belonging to a group). The understanding of their own and others’ cultural identity is affected by the values and attitudes commonly seen at home or in the surrounding communities. During his childhood, he witnessed how the colonizers divided and destroyed their nation using language. He witnessed how their government’s propaganda exploited their kind. His beliefs and values were shaped by language through his parents and the people that surround him. Language has also become the means of transferring cultures and knowledge from one generation to another, just like how Trevor was taught by her mother. One can experience freedom if he/she can communicate.

Language becomes Trevor’s window of opportunity that impacted his life in a noticeable sense as he grows up in a very unfair world. It becomes his steering wheel that he can use to control his life path, the way he perceives his stance, and how he builds his self-concept. A person’s identity is affected by different external forces, build by internal resources, and was cultivated by time. Discovering the power of language at a young age is one of Trevor’s strengths that would help him in different dimensions of his life. 

Works cited

  1. Norton, B. (1997). Language, Identity, and the Ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly, 31(3), 409-429. doi: 10.2307/3587831
  2. Noah, T. (2016). Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Spiegel & Grau.
  3. Gee, J. P. (2000). Identity and Language Learning: What We Learn from Culture in Action. English Language Teaching Journal, 54(1), 1-10. doi: 10.1093/elt/54.1.1
  4. Kramsch, C. (1998). Language and Culture. Oxford University Press.
  5. Kramsch, C. (2009). The Multilingual Subject. Oxford University Press.
  6. Pavlenko, A. (2008). Second Language Learning as Participation and the (Re)Construction of Selves. In M. P. Breen (Ed.), Learner Contributions to Language Learning: New Directions in Research (pp. 155-172). Routledge.
  7. Pavlenko, A. (2014). The Bilingual Mind and What It Tells Us about Language and Thought. Cambridge University Press.
  8. Sfard, A. (1998). On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One. Educational Researcher, 27(2), 4-13. doi: 10.3102/0013189X027002004
  9. Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press.
  10. Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Self-Efficacy: An Essential Motive to Learn. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 82-91. doi: 10.1006/ceps.1999.1016

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