Language is a human gift, it is what makes us different from the other species and also it is what we use to communicate. But is language just a tool or does it shape our thoughts and identity?
Language exposes many facets of a person’s identity, it determines how we interact with other people. Ethnic and social identity assumes an important part in which language controls how we perceive the world, no matter what the mother tongue is.
On the one hand, language plays an important part in a person’s ethnic identity because it is linked to the roots of the ethnicity. In fact, this connection still exists even after the language is no longer spoken.
For instance, many present-day Italian-Americans who even though they do not speak Italian, they consider the Italian language as a symbol of their ethnic identity. To sum up, the ethnic identity of a community is represented by its origins, culture and language.
On the other hand, language also plays an important role in the social identity of a person. Social identity concerns the relationship of an individual with other people, from close family members to strangers in the street abilities, experiences. It can also shape their abilities and experiences. The mother tongue of an individual is likely the strongest component in a person’s social identity, as it is normally linked to family and to the terms by which this person has been raised, since that specific language provides the primary means to categorise, think about, make sense of, and express our understanding of reality.
Languages themselves also play an important role in how identities are shaped. Observing that languages differ from one another, we will appreciate that, depending on what language we speak, reality will be perceived differently. This can be explained with an example:
“John read the newspaper yesterday”, focusing on the verb, “read”:
- In English, the tense of the verb must be emphasised, since it must be pronounced as “red” and not as “reed”.
- In Turkish, it must be included in the verb how this information was acquired. If this event has been personally witnessed, one specific verb form will be used. But if the person who is talking about this event has read or heard about it, another form will be used.
- In Russian, the completion of the action must be included in the verb. If John read the entire newspaper, a different verb will be used than if John read only part of the newspaper.
As can be seen in this example, languages require different things of their speakers. So, it can be assumed that speakers think differently depending on their language. Nevertheless, this topic has created controversy among linguists.
Some scholars agree on that speakers think differently depending on their language because, as each language requires the speaker to focus on one specific part of the information, depending on the language is spoken, different information will be stored in the brain of the speaker, what leads them to think in a different manner.
Some other scholars do not agree since they state that everyone processes and encodes information in their brains in the same way, so, as a result, we all think in the same way.
To conclude, language plays a very important part in how our identities are created, as it is our tool for communication with others and for processing all the information we receive during our lives.
By Alba Malagon Diaz