Language and Human Identity


No one would disagree with the claim that language and thought interact in many significant ways. The world is full of communication. From sparrows chirping and talk radio in the morning to owls hooting and TV shows at night, people and animals are constantly exchanging information through a wide variety of channels. All human beings use language for a variety of purposes. Even children with the most diverse abilities such as visually or hearing impaired use as complex and rich a system of communication as any ‘normal child’ does. It is therefore not at all surprising that most people think that they know many things about language.

This is indeed unfortunate. Language is not simply used by a speaker as a mean of communicating information but is mostly used for the fulfilment of social function, establishing and maintain the relationship. It is a system that to great extent structures the reality around us for representing it in our minds; it is a marker of our identity in a variety of ways; and finally, it is closely associated with power in society. We should also remember that we use language not only to talk to others but also to ourselves, and that indeed is a very important function of language. How else shall we clarify our thoughts if we don’t learn to talk to ourselves in the first instance?

The Need for Language

We need language to understand different content areas such as History, Physics or Mathematics. Similarly, whether we see nature or society, we see it, to a large extent, in terms of our language. It is our language which tells us whether we see just barf or both ‘ice’ and ‘snow’ or above 20 words for a similar object as the Eskimos do. And so far the relationship of language with power is concerned, we all know that when we insist on a certain kind of pronunciation or writing system as being ‘correct’ and ‘pure’ and ‘standard’, we are in effect saying that if you wish to gain power in society, this is what you must do.

Most children learn not just one but several languages before they come to school. The number of words a child knows before she comes to school is over 5000 or so. Multilingualism is thus constitutive of our identity. Even the so-called ‘monolingual’ in a remote village often controls a verbal repertoire that equips her to function adequately over a large number of communicative encounters. We should also note that several recent studies have effectively demonstrated the positive relationship of multilingualism with cognitive growth, social tolerance, divergent thinking and scholastic achievement.

Language Faculty

All children learn not only the basic systems and subsystems of their language but also how to use them appropriately before they are three years old. It is eminently possible to engage in a meaningful conversation with a three-year-old on any subject that falls within her cognitive domain. It, therefore, seems obvious that in addition to the rich and caring exposure that they receive, normal children may be born with an innate language faculty as Noam Chomsky, the father of Linguistics has argued. Even though all languages have different words for different objects and different kinds of phrases and expressions etc., we note that all have categories like Nouns, Verbs and Adjectives or either a Subject-Verb-Object (like English) or a Subject-Object-Verb (like Hindi) word order or that they will have several rules that cut across languages.

Language as a Rule-governed System

For linguists, who study the structure of language in a scientific way, the grammar of a language is a highly abstract system consisting of several subsystems. At the level of sounds, languages of the world are closely associated with rhythm and music in terms of their intonation patterns and pitch contours. For example, no language allows more than three consonantal sounds at the beginning of a word, and even when three are allowed the choices are highly restricted. Language is similarly rule-governed at the levels of words, sentences and discourse. Some of these rules are located in our innate Language Faculty but most are socio-historically constituted and show a considerable amount of variation across time and space both at the individual and social levels. Such linguistic variability is always present in a classroom and a teacher should be aware of it and use it as constructively as possible.

Speech and Writing

The fundamental difference between speech and writing is that written language is consciously monitored and frozen in time; we can return to it whenever we want. Spoken language is far more transient in nature and changes far more rapidly than the written language. One should not, therefore, be surprised to notice discrepancies between the spoken and written languages. There is no intrinsic relationship between speech and script; no sacrosanct connection between spoken English and the Roman script or between spoken Sanskrit or Hindi and the Devanagari script. In fact, all the languages of the world, with minor modifications, can be written in one script, just as any single language can be written in all the scripts of the world

Language, Literature and Aesthetics

Apart from having the quality of unfolding the world, language has many fictional elements. Poetry, prose and drama are potent sources not only of refining our literary sensibility but also of enriching our aesthetic life, enhancing our aesthetic abilities and enormously improving our linguistic abilities, particularly reading comprehension and written articulation. Literature also includes jokes, irony, fantasy, story, parody and parable which pervade our everyday discourse. This would also hopefully lead to a respect for minor and endangered languages that is legitimately due to them. No community wishes to let its ‘voice’ die.

Language and Society

The individual acquires languages in specific socio-cultural and political contexts. Every child learns what to say, to whom and where. Different languages and styles are used in different contexts by different age groups in unique ways. The variability in human linguistic behaviour is not thus randomly distributed but links systems of language, communication, thought and knowledge. As Aurorin points out,

‘language cannot exist and develop outside society. Development of language is ultimately stimulated by our cultural heritage and the needs of social development, but we would not overlook the reverse dependence either. Human society cannot do without language as the most important, most perfect and universal means of communication, the formation of thought and accumulation and transmission of expression.’

It is equally important to realize that languages are not ‘discrete objects out there’, they are actually constantly changing, fluid systems of behaviour which human beings acquire and change to define themselves and the world around them. Very often languages are treated as entities and people form strong stereotypes about them. We need to be aware of both these aspects of language.

Language and Identity

An individual creates the patterns of behaviour in terms of the groups they wish to identify with, acquiring in the process communicative competence that enables her to move along a continuum varying from formal to informal language. More often than not we find identities to be in conflict with one another. The question of identity becomes particularly relevant in the case of minorities and there is a great need to be sensitive to their languages and cultures in the interest of national and global peace and harmony. For most of us, our language bears for us our identity and governs how we will behave in the society.

Language and Power

Some languages become more prestigious than others and become associated with socio-political power, in spite of the fact that all languages as abstract systems are equal. It is generally the language used by the elite that acquires power in society and becomes the standard language. All the grammars, dictionaries and various reference materials will invariably address this ‘standard’ language. There is no difference between standard language, pure language, dialect, variety, etc From the point of view of the science of language.

A Language is often defined as a dialect with an army and navy. More than anything else it is the socio-political and the economic considerations that make people decide the national, official, associate official languages to be used in education, administration, judiciary, mass media, etc. In principle, it is eminently possible to do anything in any language, including advanced research in humanities, social sciences and sciences. It should thus become obvious that languages of the underprivileged will never get empowered unless we provide support structures that would ensure their use in a variety of contexts.

Language and Gender

The issue of gender concerns not half but the whole of humanity. Over a period of time, It has coded in its texture a large number of elements that perpetuate gender stereotypes. It is not just that many scholars, including some distinguished linguists, have described the female speech as ‘trivial’ and ‘a string of pearls’ signifying nothing, but a substantial part of the lexicon and syntactic expressions encode gender-bias. Detailed analysis of male-female conversation has also revealed how men use a variety of conversational strategies to assert their point of view.

The received notions of what it means to be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ are constantly reconstructed in our behaviour and are, sometimes unwittingly perhaps, transmitted through our textbooks. In fact, the damage was done by the ‘gender construction of knowledge’ is becoming increasingly obvious. Language, including illustrations and other visual aids, plays a central role in the formation of such knowledge and we need to pay immediate attention to this aspect of language. It is extremely important that textbook writers and teachers begin to appreciate that the passive and deferential roles generally assigned to women are socio-culturally constructed and need to be destroyed as quickly as possible. Voices of women in all their glory need to find a prominent place in our textbooks and teaching strategies.

For more such articles visit our website Fajar Magazine

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