The Importance of Language and Identity: How Mother Tongue Shapes Who You Are

By Dr. Raju Debbarma

September 16, 2023

Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow– by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Language is not just a tool for communication; it is a powerful force that shapes identity and cultural heritage. Whether we realize it or not, mother tongue, the language learned from within family and community, plays a profound role in shaping who we are as individuals. Therefore, this article attempts to briefly look into the intricate relationship between language and identity, drawing on research and expert insights to illustrate how mother tongue molds cultural identity, cognitive processes, and interpersonal relationships.

The Significance of Language and Cultural Identity:

Mother tongue is more than a means of communication, as it is a direct link to cultural roots and a repository of cultural heritage. It carries the traditions, folklore, customs, values, and historical stories of community and ancestors. Sociolinguist Woolard, in her work on linguistic anthropology, highlights how language connects individuals to their cultural identity 1. When one speak mother tongue, he/she is not just using words; but expressing a living connection to one cultural roots.

For instance, someone who speaks their mother tongue is not just using a language; they are perpetuating a rich cultural heritage that spans thousands of years. This connection to culture is evident in the idioms, proverbs, and metaphors embedded in the language, all of which reflect the values and beliefs of the culture.

Language as a Mirror of Identity:

Mother tongue serves as a mirror that reflects one’s identity. It shapes the way you perceive yourself and how others perceive you. Sociolinguist Fishman have explored the concept of “connection between language and ethnic identity”, which suggests that the language one speak is intertwined with sense of self 2.

For example, a person who identifies as a native speaker of a particular place or state may associate their language with a sense of pride and belonging, contributing to their identity as a member of the native place or state speaking community.

Language and Cognitive Processes:

Mother tongue also influences the way you think and perceive the world. This concept, known as linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, suggests that language shapes cognition. Psycholinguist Boroditsky, have conducted research and demonstrate those different languages handle verbs, distinctions, gender, time, space, metaphor, and agency differently, and those differences make people think and act differently 3. This demonstrates how different languages can lead to variations in thought patterns.

For instance, languages with a rich system of spatial terms might influence speakers to be more attuned to spatial relationships in their environment. In contrast, languages with a strong tense system may affect how individuals conceptualize time.

The Role of Language in Interpersonal Relationships and Belonging:

Language is not only about self-identity; it also plays a vital role in how you relate to others. The language you speak can determine the depth of connection you have with individuals who share the same mother tongue. It fosters a sense of belonging, unity and solidarity. In a study by social psychologist Cohen, it was found that people who spoke the same language were more likely to cooperate and trust each other in economic exchange games 4. This suggests that language can serve as a bonding factor, strengthening interpersonal relationships and sense of belonging.

Who are vulnerable to losing language identity and why need to preserve language?

In this era of globalization and urbanization, assimilation among different community cultures are also at high; in this process of acculturation, languages also slowly tend to loss its roots (either wittingly or inadvertently). Although, it can vary widely depending on the specific circumstances and context. Generally, minority and lesser widely spoken languages are more vulnerable to assimilation and potential loss of language identity. This is because dominant and larger languages often have more resources, speakers, and institutional support to preserve their cultural and linguistic heritage.

In this process, the minority and marginalized communities are among the most vulnerable when it comes to preserving languages. When language disappears, so too does a significant part of that community’s identity. Therefore, the preservation of language is crucial, as it holds the key link to the roots of culture, tradition, folklore, sense of belonging, unity and unique identity.  It also becomes a way to honour and holds the knowledge of cultural distinctiveness of the community in the face of adversity for generations to remain connected to ancestral identity. Although, it’s essential to note that the preservation or loss of a language is a complex and multifaceted process influenced by historical, social, economic, and political factors. Efforts is a must to maintain and revitalize language in this era of cultural assimilation so to counteract this vulnerability and promote cultural identity.

In this 21st century world’s, learning many languages benefits but in this process mother tongue language should not loss its roots as it plays an important role in defining the identity of who you are. And as said by UNESCO ‘our values, beliefs and identity’ are embedded within language 5.

To conclude, mother tongue is not just merely a tool for communication, but it is a vital cornerstone component of identity. It connects you to your cultural heritage, shapes the way you think, way of life and influences your relationships with others. Understanding the profound impact of language on identity highlights the importance of preserving and celebrating linguistic diversity. Also protecting language is not just a matter of linguistic diversity but a matter of safeguarding the very essence of who we are as individuals and communities. As individuals, we carry the legacy of our mother tongue, and through language, we express the unique tapestry of our cultural identity. As sociolinguists and psychologists continue to explore the intricate relationship between language and identity, it becomes evident that language is not just a means of expression, but it is the mirror through which we view ourselves and our place in the world.

“Mother tongue (language) is a precious identity resource, that needs to be preserved for generations to come”

References:

  1. Woolard, K. A. (1998). Introduction: Language ideology as a field of inquiry. In B. Schieffelin, K. Woolard, & P. Kroskrity (Eds.), Language Ideologies: Practice and Theory (pp. 3-47). Oxford University Press.
  2. Fishman, J. A. (2001). Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity. Oxford University Press.
  3. Boroditsky, L. (2011). How language shapes thought. Scientific American, 304(2), 62-65.
  4. Cohen, D. (1996). Law, social policy, and violence: The impact of regional cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(5), 961-978.
  5. https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/02/1003191
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