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Language And Culture In An Immigrant Society

Essay by 24  •  March 27, 2011  •  2,499 Words (10 Pages)  •  759 Views

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The professor of my linguistics anthropology course this year, stepped up to the podium on the first day of class, and surprised us all with his feelings regarding language. He began by telling us that he specializes in human misery, perhaps insinuating language is a source of misery. Dr. Song is a Korean immigrant and the sounds of his own language repulses him. Growing up in modern society America has made him cringe at the sound of his native tongue. It is this same native language of Korean that my professor falls back into when he is made nervous by an English speaking person leaning in closer to him and squinting up his face expecting not to understand what will come out of his mouth before he even opens it. It is as if the frustration and impatience he has confronted in people has fostered a hatred for the part of him that is foreign.

Michael Agar, a leading theorist on modern linguistics, has proposed a reason for this regression. In looking at the elusive idea of "culture" we see that the content is ever changing. It is a continual process one that Agar says "is not something those people have; it's something that happens to you." My professor used an example of two types of drivers to demonstrate the different reactions to the complications that arise with culture. These two drivers will be called the first and second driver. The first driver embodies the number one type and the second, the good driver. He uses the situation of traffic congestion to put these types into perspective. Imagine a driver during traffic congestion. The number one type will say to himself, "The system is causing this inconvenience, because it is always like this." To a number one type, it is this "immutable truth" that is the cause of any obstacles. This truth can be applied to almost anything in a society where we are surrounded by reproducible images and experiences, which grants permission to use stereotypes. The problem (the traffic congestion) is caused by a "thing" out there and is objectified.

But there is a second driver, the good driver. This driver does not objectify the situation and use the accepted truth. This driver deals with the situation and articulates a reason or response based on that instance without reaching for an easy, simple answer. To the second driver this answer is unacceptable because, unlike the number one type, this driver understands the fluidity of culture. According to Agar, the misunderstanding of culture on the part of the number one type is responsible for the breakdown of communication between my professor and the number one type English speaker.

The English speaker is expecting to hear a Korean accent, one that will be hard to understand because it is a different culture, a different language. What this person does not understand is that culture is being created at the moment. An instance, an interaction, a communication between two beings that strays from the truths that are held so strong in every one of us is where you find culture. This is the reason why we lean in to hear what we assume will be a foreign accent or dialect, but when what does come out is clear correct English, we are surprised. Culture happens in the difference between our expectations and reality. Culture is not this thing out there that can be objectified, it is happening to us.

This is not something that we will easily accept, because we are the number ones. To claim otherwise is very bold, according to my professor, who believes that very few people, if any are number twos. My professor posed this question to us during our first couple of classes and many people, including myself were very eager to claim to be the good driver, the number two. Although this is the ideal, I do not know many people who truly are the good driver; who prefer the language of another to their own. Most likely everyone has wondered, as a result of the frustration of misunderstanding, why someone in America is not speaking English. I pride myself on being a very open-minded and liberal individual, but I find that I have thoughts very similar to the objectification by the number one type. This is something that I would like to change, but it will require more than breaking down barriers, it is about decentering myself and realizing that I am one of many (Song). Professor Song thinks that overcoming this centrist bias is almost impossible, because we need this objective truth in order to avoid confronting what makes us feel uncomfortable.

Too often communication in terms of spoken language is referred to separate of culture. Agar believes that language and culture can never be discussed without the other so he created the term, "languaculture" (Agar 138). Too often these terms are in conflict with one another when trying to identify one's identity in the context of America. They are faced with the view that speaking English defines an American. This struggle is one very familiar to immigrants to the United States in search of their own individual American dream. Families immigrate to the United States often with very little knowledge of the English language, others with much more of a grasp of the language. If it is true that language is our culture and culture our language, than the immigrant living in this country who has a native language cannot deny that language. This is why the centrist thought that English is the only language that should be spoken in the United States is so damaging to those with a native language other than English. People are being asked to abandon a part of their identities because those who have English as a first language prefer this or even demand it. For so many immigrants there is this struggle to become Americanized and to be accepted as an American.

Although bilingualism is becoming very important the opinion that is held by many "Americans" is that one must understand and use English first and foremost. This is a situation that must be dealt with very cautiously. People are at risk of losing part of their cultural identity in an attempt to become Americanized and accepted into their new communities.

Language is the key to power in our communities. Even in our school community we see how those with voices are heard and responded to. They are the ones rallying for change and progress not only on campus, but also globally. These are the people making the decisions that affect the course the university will take in the future. Although it

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