Language and the Sense of Belonging

The importance of language became apparent to me while visiting Hawaii in 2005, where I briefly talked to a cab driver who was one of the few natives that could still speak Hawaiian. When the Americans invaded Hawaii, speaking the native language was forbidden, and so it was forgotten by most people. However, she still remembered the language and told me that it gave her a sense of connection to her roots.

I can only imagine being forbidden to speak Swedish, the sense of loss I would feel. Language is strongly connected to one’s identity, and I would imagine that one feels a gap without one’s native language. Language also affects me while being in Japan, since I do not speak Japanese and therefore do not really feel a connection to the country. Perhaps this feeling is very individual, but it is frustrating not being able to communicate with people on a daily basis. Not learning Japanese while being here is a personal decision, but I sometimes wish that I knew the language in order to connect more with people and my experience here.

St. Joseph’s Women’s Health Centre in Toronto dealt with the topic of the importance of language when they interviewed women that have migrated to Canada about their experiences. In their report, they discuss the relationship between migration/resettlement and attachment, and language plays a big part in this. The women faced difficulties participating in society on many levels, including work. One woman said: “The fear I have right now is if I start working. Now it’s time for me to do something, something for me, and …see if I can work with the community, and I’m a little bit afraid because I’ve never done that in English before, and, I’ll be forced to take that step and it’s not easy. You know, it’s uncomfortable.”1

Another woman talked about the significance on a daily basis of her native language of Arabic. To her, it was more than just a language since it was connected to religion and prayer. She even went so far as to say “without Arabic I can’t function, I can’t be.”1

A third woman expressed her concern about connecting with people: “How can I be funny in English? Really, if I were to try, I would be so self-conscious. While in my own language I can say one thing and be funny, and everybody would be laughing. You know when you should be frivolous, when you should be serious. It’s everything is there, planned for you, as though life is known to you. Life is not really known to you in this country…And it never will be.”1

To sum up; Language is important in order to feel a sense of connection and belonging to oneself, to others and to a country, but learning a new language is not just about learning a language, it is about taking on a whole new culture and everything that entails.

by Erika Selander Edström

1) http://www.attachmentacrosscultures.org/impact/index.html

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One thought on “Language and the Sense of Belonging

  1. SOO agree with this post! I’m from Korea and have been living in Japan for 4 years now – but then again, I speak English most of the time when in class or with my friends. The only time I speak my “mother tongue” is with my family. 4 years have gone by like that, and I can assure you that my Korean is not as good and fluent as it was. I can still speak, of course, but I always have this urge to grab words from English or Japanese. As my language ability decline, I do sense less bond with my home country. I didn’t mean to sever my roots or anything. It just happened naturally! When I went back to Korea this summer afte two years or so, I started to see the country in a way a foreign tourist would…”OMG everything is SO cheap!”, “everyone has those bangs and fringes..!”, “gosh, that was really rude?”, etc. When I told my best friends, they said it’s just that now I think like a Japanese. Weird, because my parents think that I’m (and my values and ideals are) too “liberal” and too “Americanized”.

    Anyway.. I AM Korean, born and raised there for 15 years, have that ugly green passport, root for national teams, love spicy food, and like things being done quickly. Well, still, I can’t help it. I just feel like I’m not “100%” Korean if there’s anything like that…!

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