Language and Culture in an Immigrant Society


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The professor of my linguistics anthropology course this year, stepped up to the podium on the first day of class, and surprised us all with his feelings regarding language. He began by telling us that he specializes in human misery, perhaps insinuating language is a source of misery. Dr. Song is a Korean immigrant and the sounds of his own language repulses him. Growing up in modern society America has made him cringe at the sound of his native tongue. It is this same native language of Korean that my professor falls back into when he is made nervous by an English speaking person leaning in closer to him and squinting up his face expecting not to understand what will come out of his mouth before he even opens it. It is as if the frustration and impatience he has confronted in people has fostered a hatred for the part of him that is foreign.

 

Michael Agar, a leading theorist on modern linguistics, has proposed a reason for this regression. In looking at the elusive idea of "culture" we see that the content is ever changing. It is a continual process one that Agar says "is not something those people have; it's something that happens to you." My professor used an example of two types of drivers to demonstrate the different reactions to the complications that arise with culture. These two drivers will be called the first and second driver. The first driver embodies the number one type and the second, the good driver. He uses the situation of traffic congestion to put these types into perspective. Imagine a driver during traffic congestion. The number one type will say to himself, "The system is causing this inconvenience, because it is always like this." To a number one type, it is this "immutable truth" that is the cause of any obstacles. This truth can be applied to almost anything in a society where we are surrounded by reproducible images and experiences, which grants permission to use stereotypes. The problem (the traffic congestion) is caused by a "thing" out there and is objectified.

 

But there is a second driver, the good driver. This driver does not objectify the situation and use the accepted truth.

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This driver deals with the situation and articulates a reason or response based on that instance without reaching for an easy, simple answer. To the second driver this answer is unacceptable because, unlike the number one type, this driver understands the fluidity of culture. According to Agar, the misunderstanding of culture on the part of the number one type is responsible for the breakdown of communication between my professor and the number one type English speaker.

 

The English speaker is expecting to hear a Korean accent, one that will be hard to understand because it is a different culture, a different language. What this person does not understand is that culture is being created at the moment. An instance, an interaction, a communication between two beings that strays from the truths that are held so strong in every one of us is where you find culture. This is the reason why we lean in to hear what we assume will be a foreign accent or dialect, but when what does come out is clear correct English, we are surprised. Culture happens in the difference between our expectations and reality. Culture is not this thing out there that can be objectified, it is happening to us.

 

This is not something that we will easily accept, because we are the number ones. To claim otherwise is very bold, according to my professor, who believes that very few people, if any are number twos. My professor posed this question to us during our first couple of classes and many people, including myself were very eager to claim to be the good driver, the number two. Although this is the ideal, I do not know many people who truly are the good driver; who prefer the language of another to their own. Most likely everyone has wondered, as a result of the frustration of misunderstanding, why someone in America is not speaking English. I pride myself on being a very open-minded and liberal individual, but I find that I have thoughts very similar to the objectification by the number one type. This is something that I would like to change, but it will require more than breaking down barriers, it is about decentering myself and realizing that I am one of many (Song). Professor Song thinks that overcoming this centrist bias is almost impossible, because we need this objective truth in order to avoid confronting what makes us feel uncomfortable.

 

Too often communication in terms of spoken language is referred to separate of culture. Agar believes that language and culture can never be discussed without the other so he created the term, "languaculture" (Agar 138). Too often these terms are in conflict with one another when trying to identify one's identity in the context of America. They are faced with the view that speaking English defines an American. This struggle is one very familiar to immigrants to the United States in search of their own individual American dream. Families immigrate to the United States often with very little knowledge of the English language, others with much more of a grasp of the language. If it is true that language is our culture and culture our language, than the immigrant living in this country who has a native language cannot deny that language. This is why the centrist thought that English is the only language that should be spoken in the United States is so damaging to those with a native language other than English. People are being asked to abandon a part of their identities because those who have English as a first language prefer this or even demand it. For so many immigrants there is this struggle to become Americanized and to be accepted as an American.

 

Although bilingualism is becoming very important the opinion that is held by many "Americans" is that one must understand and use English first and foremost. This is a situation that must be dealt with very cautiously. People are at risk of losing part of their cultural identity in an attempt to become Americanized and accepted into their new communities.

 

Language is the key to power in our communities. Even in our school community we see how those with voices are heard and responded to. They are the ones rallying for change and progress not only on campus, but also globally. These are the people making the decisions that affect the course the university will take in the future. Although it is not necessary for people to be loud to be successful, strong verbal communication skills are vital. One cannot begin to attract, connect, and organize people to work effectively if she is lacking in the ability to communicate with her peers. Perfecting this act is something many immigrants have become very good at, communicating and reaching mainstream American society while also maintaining contact with one's ethnic group.

 

By the third generation most immigrant families speak entirely English (Pedraza 37). This is the reason why the United States has been named the language graveyard (Pedraza 434). Although there is a belief that America is accepting of multi-culturalism, families come to the United States with flourishing native languages but the English only sentiment causes so much deterioration, that they cannot survive. In no other country is language use so exclusive as in the United States. Only in remote communities where immigrants are in a tight ethnic closeness, does a native tongue remain. Although other aspects of native cultures can remain, their native language is almost always lost.

 

The choice of the "new generation" (the offspring of the first generation) is the catalyst for this process of English acquisition and the fate of native language. The new generation tends to favor English over their parent's languages (Pedraza 432). Henry Park, the narrator in the novel Native Speaker, is part of the new generation. We see in his adult life the role that language constantly plays in shaping his identity with his American wife and in his memories of his childhood and his very traditional Korean upbringing. We see the relationship between him and his father and the struggle they have to understand one another, the Korean father and his American son. Henry and his father are constantly trying to keep communication between them from becoming lost. Although his father has retained his Korean values, Henry's first language is English. Henry never wanted to lose touch with his father, and he writes, "Even the most minor speech seemed trying. To tell him I loved him, I studied far into the night. I read my entire children's encyclopedia, drilling from aardvark to zymurgy" (Lee 128). Spoken language was failing Henry and his father, deteriorating the delicate balance of a family that communication helps to support. The private issue of losing communication in a family must be dealt with publicly.

 

When Henry and his father discover the difficulties of verbal communication, their family culture suffers. This is happening everyday among immigrant families. One of the authors of Origins and Destinies, Immigration, Race, and Ethnicity in America, Silvia Pedraza states that it is impossible for even the most educated immigrant parents to transmit their native language to their children if they do not have public support (Pedraza 442). As evidenced by the strong push for an English only policy the present lack of public support is demonstrated. Although statistics do not show that even the most educated of parents makes a difference in whether or not the native language is retained, it very much could make the difference. The most highly educated immigrant parents could provide for their children a bilingual education. This is happening among more prosperous immigrant groups like the Cubans (Pedraza 440).

 

Although many Americans feel that English should be the official language, monolingualism can be very damaging to all parties involved. Many native speaking English families encourage the acquisition of a foreign language such as French or German for example, but immigrant parents are less likely to encourage this in their children and only stress the knowledge of English as important. It has been determined that learning a foreign language is not only an academic tool, but a social tool as well. In restricting or not encouraging this from the position as parent, the loss is felt not only on the individual level but also throughout the community (Pedraza 442). If the monolinguist trend continues, the public support for any efforts made by parents to pass on their language to their offspring will be cancelled out. In addition the opportunity to communicate on this native level will also be destroyed, bringing families to the point where Henry Park and his father arrived.

 

There is a fear among nativist Americans that bilingualism will have a destructive effect on our linguistic society and that English must always be the dominant language. Pedraza and Rumbaut present a U.S. English policy statement, which demonstrates this fear:

 

"Where linguistics has broken down, our energies and resources flow into tensions, hostilities, prejudices, and resentments. These develop and persist. Within a few years, if the breakdown persists, there will be no retreat. It becomes irrevocable, irreversible. Society as we know it can fade into noisy babel then chaos (Pedraza 432).

 

Although they speak of unity, it is not the type of unity that will create a more peaceful society or assist in its advancement, it is a unity that intends to erase the language culture of the immigrant society. But this nativist sentiment is unfounded and a result of ignorance. This is a fear created by the nativist's desire for dependence. If the immigrant population is relying on English, than they are relying on the nativist and it is him that will be dominant. To many immigrants, speaking English is what will achieve equality and acceptance in the United States, but in the eyes of the nativist, it is almost an act of submission on the part of the immigrant.

 

If language is power, then to me that would mean that the more one has the better off one would be. Perhaps part of the centrist bias of the nativist is that by stripping the immigrant of her native language, than she is also being stripped of her power. It is an attempt to keep the stratification between races in this country and does nothing but encourage the discrimination of immigrants.

 

Many people in favor of bilingualism are afraid that the pressure to Americanize or "Englishize" will become too powerful for the immigrant to community resist (Zentella 266). But among the nativists there seems to be this fear that America will lose its stereotypical cultural identity because of the number of immigrants coming and being successful here, with and without the use of the English language. Despite the fact that the whole concept of American was created by immigrants in the first place. Many nativists want to find a resurgence of a nationalism that may be long gone, one that President Theodore Roosevelt insisted upon:

 

The man who becomes completely Americanized...and who "talks United States" instead of dialect of the country which he has of his own will abandoned is not only doing his plain duty by his adopted land, but is also rendering himself a service of immeasurable value (cited in Zentella 1997: 266).

 

A lack of proficiency in English does not mean a lack of love and loyalty for the United States, if this is what defines a good citizen. The United States wants to continue colonization even within the US.

 

My anthropology professor is completely aware of what it means when he says that hearing Korean spoken makes him cringe. He knows that in the minds of the centrists, they have succeeded in convincing him that he should be ashamed of his native language and his heritage. But perhaps they have created people who exist between two worlds who may possess more power through the use and understanding of more than just English.

 

If culture is ever changing, than there is no real American identity. People will come and go through the borders of the United States bringing with them not only their language, but also their native culture in everything that they do. With each new face, the American culture is changing and this process is unending. The geographical make-up of the United States will not change anytime soon, but the content is undergoing a continual revision as more differences surface. Each time I hear a language spoken that I do not understand and there is a communication complication, I see the content of the American culture changing before my eyes, because culture is created by the differences. If there were complete unity and homogeneity, there would be no way to discover what we can learn from each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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