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Languages: A composition of words or identity?

By Aneesa Mahmood

Under the limitations of the classroom, we reduce languages to mere words and the construction of sentences, while failing to appreciate the culture, the history and the places a given language signifies. I remember despising Spanish lessons, and feigning ignorance when being asked to speak, because it wasn’t ‘cool’ to be skilledin or show enthusiasm for languages. When we received our foreign exchange students, I was taken aback by how articulate they were in learning English. How were they able to comfortably converse, while we were strugglingto recite our grammar tables? One reason can perhaps be attributed to the English dominance across the globe, especially in media and entertainment, as well the physical manifestation of the British legacy in many post-colonial populations. Now as I have moved into my adult years, I have discovered a love for languages, wanting to learn more, regretting the apathy I held as a naïve teenager.

Every language has its own beauty and emotion, which cannot always be translated. Upon reaching a breakthrough after the difficulty of learning grammar and vocabulary, one is able to progress to appreciate the arts, music and literature, principal to understanding a people. Take a look at the poetry of Rumi, who has captured the heart of thousands across the West. If the English translation has this effect, we cannot begin to comprehend what the original Persian would convey; a language distinguished in its lyrical and emotional sweetness.

Languages by definition are our way of communication, written, verbal or by gestures and feelings. On further examination, perhaps a more anthropological study would highlight the way languages are a conduit to our identities through nationality, ethnicity, and transnational ancestral histories. I would suggest languages are the most important emblem of identity. The question I pose is whether this ‘identity’, so to speak, is imposed to further divisions amongst our multi-cultural western societies, or a source of union and celebration of diversity? Taking the US, English is evidently the dominant language, and illustrative of the nationalist and patriotic sentiment. This systemic view – whether intentional or fortuitous – undermines immigrant diasporas, forcing them to prove themselves as ‘American’ through the suppression of their own language, which is deemed inferior.

I came across an interesting concept on ‘linguistic genocide’, referring to the prohibition of languages under mainstream education and inter-relations. In my parents’ time, growing up in Thatcher’s Britain as second-generation immigrants from Pakistan, the education system pushed English as the main language, discouraging the speaking of their native language even at home. Today it is generally comprehended that learning a new language should be additional, and not a replacement language; where in fact learning languages is encouraged. It is interesting to see in an age of capitalism, multilingualism is seen as a valuable skill, whereas disadvantaged or working-class communities across the world often in third world countries speaking multiple languages is the norm, be in varying dialects, or learning the language of the host country for immigrant diasporas.

I have spent the past year studying abroad in Malaysiaand was given the opportunity to truly immerse myself within the cultures, languages and societiesof the Far East. I found myself intrigued by the etymological history of the Malay language, which embodies the legacy of the British Empire encompassed through the Latin script, while also inheriting Arab and Persian influence consequential to the Islamic movement across the Malay world. The Malay creole culture is a perfect inquiry of the paradox of language as a source of union versus division.The Malaysian government seeks to institutionalise the Arabic based Jawiscript to encourage Malay identity, although not altering the spoken language, this has been met with critique by ethnically non-Malay populations. It has been argued this will disrupt the Malay identity as it is Arabicising the script. Equally we may probe, is the current Latin script not also a disruption of this Malay identity; imposing British influence? I would suggest that languages like this cannot be categorised into these one-dimensional identities. Languages are innately compiled of anthropological diversity, historical movements, expeditions, and progressions to the words we speak today.

On the subject of divisions, I ask you, do languages newly construct or merely express an existing notion into existence? The phrasing regarding race which are popular in social studies today are noteworthy in regard to this inquiry. A focus is placed on specific syntax, to be politically correct and sensitive to racial histories, and connotations of given words. Systems and acts of division and racism cannot be denied, where syntax might merely express existing feelings, but language is powerful, and discriminatory words reinforce have been shown to reinforce barriers and racial attitudes. Perhaps the neologisms are beneficial in deconstructing deep rooted xenophobia; we can only hope to witness the power of language in contributing to this continuing movement.

We live in a time where we are seeing the decrease in the rigidity of transnational borders, a smaller global village, diversity is being accepted as the norm. To deny language is to deny a people their identity and impose a homogenous society. Languages shouldn’t be used to reinforce divisions, but rather breaking those barriers;we should pursuethe enrichment of cultures and knowledge, which can only lead to advancements in our societies.To see countless languages face extinction is to see a people lose a piece of their identity and belonging, perhaps to perceive a regression in our societies. As articulated by Sinan Antoon, a renowned Iraqi author and scholar, “Language isn’t just a means of communication, It’s a reservoir of memory, tradition, and heritage.”

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