Language And Cultural Identity

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In the second main chapter of my thesis I am going to declare language as one of the main components of cultural identity due to the fact that it is the tool of communication and it is important in the aspect of the third chapter of my thesis. First, I will briefly present language as a part of identity, then I take into consideration the relationship between language and cultural identity. Secondly, I am going to demonstrate the presence of culture during communication.

Language as a Part of Identity

It is indisputable that there is natural connection between language and identity. Using the same language by many individuals creates group memberships. As a consequence, Edwards (2009: 20-21) states that perceiving this relationship can be easier on societal levels. In the next subchapters I am going to present the relationship between language and identity both on societal and individual levels.

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The Relationship Between Language and Identity on Social Level

Along with Edwards, Bourdieu cited by Hornberger and McKay (2010: 350) confirm that in the case of understanding the relationship between language and identity, there is a need to consider the speech community besides the speaker because “speech cannot be understood apart from the person who speaks, and the person who speaks it cannot be understood apart from larger networks of social relationships.” Therefore, they explicate that a speaker cannot be assumed to use a language solely because language is created by a community of language users.

In line with the statements of the above-mentioned authors, Edwards (2009: 21) presents that “the importance of language as an identity marker at a group level is much more readily evident”

Edwards (2009: 20) states that in case of observing language in a societal level, people express their identities in connection with the societies they belong to, because they are “both components and reflections of particular social (or cultural ones)”. In short, society defines identity, and from that ‘base’, individuals construct their own personal identity. For this reason, perceiving them in that level may result in stereotyping. As an example for collective identification, Garrett-Rucks (2013: 861) shares a quite common stereotype about French people, who are considered to be rude. The author (Garrett-Rucks, 2013: 861) highlighted, that for this reason American media frequently represents and portrays French people or characters (in films or books) as rude.

The Relationship Between Language and Identity on Individual Level-Dialect and accent

In addition to his previous statement, Edwards (2009: 21) also states that in case of dialect and accent they can be observed as individual ‘markers’, so I am going to demonstrate them briefly.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, dialect is a “particular form of a language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group”. Guy Cook (2003: 13) defines dialect as a “regional and social class variety of a language which differs from the standard in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.” Haugen (1966: 923-924) states that contrasting to dialect language is superordinate so it can be used without remark to dialect, however dialect cannot be mentioned without reference to the language or other dialects because “every dialect is a language, but not every language is a dialect.” Consequently, there is always a main ancestor of languages, and a main language of dialects. He also states that it is often submitted that dialects are spoken by the ‘the lower class’ and it is not defined if these dialects belong to the main language or not.

However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, accent is a “distinctive way of pronouncing a language, especially one associated with a particular country, area, or social class”. Yule states (2006: 236) that by pronunciation, it can be recognized where the speaker comes from so accent can be beneficial to identify individuals. In addition, Crystal (2014: 15-16) highlights that accents do not only refer to regional affiliation, but they can refer to social, religious, educational or professional background.

In conclusion, by observing the speaker’s dialect or accent we can perceive his regional, social characteristics among others on an individual level, which contributes to understanding his cultural identity.

Language and Culture

In this subchapter I am going to present the relationship between language and culture due to the fact that language is formed by cultures, and culture is formed by language. Without language, people could not share their beliefs, values or ideas which create cultures, and these beliefs, values and ideas determine the language of its culture. To describe the inner relationship between language and cultural identities I am presenting one very influential idea: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

The Inner Relationship Between Language and Culture

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Edward Sapir and one of his students, Benjamin Whorf worked on a set of considerations, which later came to be known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The hypothesis postulates that language has a strong influence on how individuals think and behave. They also stated that individuals with different first languages think and behave differently during particular situations. They also presented that individuals’ common culture has an impact on their way of thinking. As a result, there is a high chance that despite translating languages through communication, the participants still do not understand each other because of their different views and thinking.

As an additional explanation about the inner relationship between language and culture, S. N. A. Kumar mentions an interesting interpretation. Leveridge cited by the author (Kumar, 2017: 2) states that every individuals’ life is very similar from the point of birth. However, the surrounding people and places, and the shared cultural components influence their identity, as well as the first acquired language also affect it to a great extent. Considering identity, these differences determine distinct personalities and cultural identities. So, the author emphasizes the importance of language as a main component of cultural identity.

Controversies about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

It has been discussed that the relationship between language and culture was described in two versions by Sapir and Whorf.

Julia M. Penn (1972: 13) states that the hypothesis can be described in a stronger and in a ‘weaker’ way. Kenison (2013: 207) emphasizes that the first, weak version can mean that “language influences thought”, and the second, stronger version can mean that “language determines thought”. The first, weak version is about ‘linguistic relativity’, and this interpretation discusses that languages influence people’s thoughts but their ‘cognitive processes’ are different of those individuals who do not speak the same first language. The second, strong version of the hypothesis is called as ‘linguistic determinism’. This view states that language controls thinking and also the way of thinking of the individuals.

Kenison (2013: 212-213) states that there are numerous studies in which the hypothesis was judged after experiments were conducted. The author presents that in the 1950s Brown and Lenneberg tested the hypothesis by observing how language learners named different colors. Kay and Berlin analyzed how the names of colors appear in different languages in 1969. Then the author describes that later, Rosch observed how English and Dani (a language spoken in New Guinea) speakers named and memorized colors. It turned out, that these actions were not related to the spoken language, because speakers of Dani only have two words for colors, basically black and white, and despite this fact they could memorize the new names of the colors, without their language influencing this process. By these experiments, researchers criticized the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis because in their point of view, their statements about the strong influence of languages on human behavior and their way of thinking, were not proven properly. Studies demonstrated that the strong version of the hypothesis is not accurate, however, it has not turned out yet that what extent the weaker version is correct.

On the other hand, Kenison (2013: 213) presented that during more recent experiments, which are similar to the one conducted by Rosch, it was revealed that according to that studies there is a connection between the process (memorizing colors) and the names of colors from their language. Later, it was also discovered that the processing of colors implemented by the left and the right hemisphere is distinct. Language affects processing if it is carried out by the left hemisphere, which is dominant in case of language, in a higher extent than if it is carried about the right hemisphere.

In conclusion, I think that it is evident that language affects our way of thinking, however, as these experiments also revealed, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be questionable, especially the ‘stronger’ version of it.

Culture Through Communication

With the rise of foreign language teaching, and the evolution of English into a ‘lingua franca’ (a common language between speakers who speak different native languages), second language acquisition results in studying different languages and meeting different cultures. Scales et al. (2006: 716) highlight that this process generates that the second language becomes the part of language learners’ identities. During communicating in an international atmosphere, speakers can realize cultural differences so in this subchapter I am going to present the expression of culture during communication.

Expressing Culture During Communication

Individuals communicate cultures and cultural identities by language. Many researchers conducted the relationship between language and culture and I have already mentioned some of them (see chapter: 2.2). Another example is Claire Kramsch (1998: 3), who states that language expresses, embodies and symbolizes cultural reality during communication.

While people express “facts, ideas or events that are communicable because they refer to a stock of knowledge about the world that other people share”, so they explicate their beliefs which belongs to those ‘others’, too. That is the reason why “language expresses cultural reality.”

In any ways we communicate, verbally through face-to-face communication, or non-verbally via letters or e-mails, “language embodies cultural reality.” By dialects and accents we can perceive individuals’ nationality. During writing, by understanding hidden meanings, or idioms for example, we can perceive a known culture.

People can identify themselves with languages by considering language as “symbols” of their identity, because language is a system of signs.

Sharing Cultural Characteristics

While individuals communicate, they share information, and they can communicate via language. However, next to information sharing and changing, people also share different characteristics of their cultural identity.

Marx Kirch (1973: 341) makes a distinction between two different language types. First, we can speak about informational language. In this case, he contrasts college professors as an example by highlighting the differences between the communication of professors of the science and the linguistic department. He explicates that science professors use language mainly for gaining knowledge with the acquired second language. Here, focusing on objective facts, cultural traits stay hidden. Secondly, he mentions the second language, which is the communicational language. In this case, the items “with cultural and interactional ties” are not removed.

In my point of view, these statements confirm and explain that individuals can be identified by the language they speak during communication. Consequently, cultural identity can be recognized through communication which is important and can be beneficial on intercultural sphere, especially during intercultural business communication which I am going to present in the following chapter.


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