Last semester I did a course called Language Through an African Lens and one of the things that fascinated me was linguistic Identity. Language is how we communicate and engage with the world around us, identifying with one brings a source of pride which then expands to cultural beliefs, morals and values e.t.c. I have seen so many people who do not speak their mother tongue; the language you would expect them to speak if they tell you who their parents are. Without even going far I have my brother who struggles to construct a full sentence in Shona and cousins who barely know how to greet LOL. It is easy to assume that if your parents speak a particular language then you should be able to do so too. However a lot goes into linguistic identity, diaspora kids can attest to that. Today I will share a bit about my views and experiences with linguistic identity.

My parents made a conscious decision to use English at home so as to improve our communication skills in the environment that we would grow up in, this made it easy for us to integrate with different people. I think this actually had an impact on the friends that I have, now that I think about it. Most of my friends are people who identify with minority linguistic groups in their environment and thus use English to get by.

Does linguistic identity change over time?

I love travelling and exploring different cultures, last year I was in Thailand with a group of friends, and it was quite an experience in terms of communication. In Thailand there were very few English speaking Thai people in the area that we were in. We found ourselves using single words as full sentences, for example if you wanted water, you would just say ‘water’ and gesture drinking, repeating the word seemed to have an impact so we would say “water, water’ and you would get a nod and water would come right away. When shopping we would ask ‘how much?’ and the shopkeeper would tell us the price, no matter what the price was we would all yell “too much, too much”, “cheap, cheap for us”. This became a signature move that got us better deals all the time. In this environment we found that less was more. Despite the obvious skin colour that shouted tourist before we even spoke a word, when we did speak most of the Thai people could guess right where we were from.

We met a couple that relocated to Thailand for ministry purposes and we became friends. They told us how they had to quickly learn Thai to enable their church to grow. They said they used the one word tactic for a while until they realized they had to learn the language and adapt if they wanted to thrive. They taught us a few words that we were proud to use in our stay there and use in our story telling when we came back home; like ‘sawadee ka’ which means Hallo.

One might find themselves having to speak another language for effectiveness, I however don’t think that this changes your linguistic identity. Identity makes us unique and changing one’s identity every time you are in a different linguistic environment means losing your uniqueness, in fact not having it at all. I think we adjust to our changing linguistic environments but we however keep our linguistic identities.

Travelling in Africa is a different story. Because the colour of our skin is the same, it took much more than that to identify us as tourists. English is used as a medium of communication in most African countries thus these trips proved to be much more educational as we got more people that could actually explain to us extensively about their country.

In a country like Mozambique where they were colonised by the Portuguese, I expected to have a similar experience with Asia, I however found that most of the people just off the boarder of South Africa, KZN could speak Zulu. I spoke Zulu a lot during my stay there. Conversing in Zulu did not however avoid the conversation of linguistic identity, I think because they were using Zulu purely as a method of communication they did not assume anyone who speaks it is actually Zulu.

I had many conversations about what languages I spoke and would proudly identify myself as Shona. When I visit my Shona grandparents who speak very little English, I struggle a bit as I have to speak pure Shona and not the pimped up version that I actually speak.

For me linguistic identity is not just what language I speak well but actually what linguistic group I belong to based on my family history. I do not think that my linguistic identity changed over the years because I believe adapting to my environment does not constitute changing who I am. English dominates my thinking and my world view, purely because it is a universal language and I think it helps to be a more effective member of the global society. I don’t think it affects my cultural beliefs and identity because English is just what I use to express my beliefs and identity and not what I identify with as my linguistic identity.

I might not be able to speak the language I identify with well but that doesn’t change who I am. You can have a ndebele person who cannot speak ndebele, they are still ndebele.

My linguistic environment contributed to who I am today, it has made me an open minded person, open to accepting differences and understanding people the way they wish to be understood.

Do you think linguistic identity changes over time? What is your definition of linguistic identity?

Till next week