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A Beginner’s Thoughts on Linguistic Identity

By: Callie Schaden |

I grew up in an area where pretty much everyone speaks English. It’s one of those towns where almost everyone who’s there has been there for generations and will most likely stay there for generations to come. Don’t get me wrong, I love my small town, and one of my favorite parts about it is that everyone knows everyone and everybody’s parent grew up with somebody else’s aunt or uncle or even worked for their grandpa back in the day. Because the community is relatively small, there are a lot of reasons why we all share a common identity. We all drive the same dirt roads, we all went to the same schools, and we all participate in the same county traditions. But throughout all these years of building a common identity through shared experiences, I never realized that one of the biggest factors of this common identity was that we all speak the same language.

Then, suddenly, my perspective changed in 15 hours, 3 flights, and a whole different continent. When I started my semester in Spain, I realized how much of my identity was tied to speaking English. In Valencia, I was an outsider. I didn’t know my way around the city, I hadn’t grown up taking part in their traditions, I wasn’t familiar with the culture, and most of all, I couldn’t so much as talk about these experiences with the Valencians because we could hardly communicate effectively. It makes sense: we consider ourselves as belonging to people who speak the same language as us because a common language is what connects us to our family, our friends, our culture, our beliefs, our traditions. It is perhaps the most crucial building block of relationships, and even more than that, unity. For those two reasons, linguistic identity is important.

Being outside of a language often makes it harder to connect relationally with people. One weekend we had a despedida de soltera—a bachelorette party—for my host mom’s granddaughter. At this point in the semester I had been feeling pretty confident about my ability to communicate in Spanish, but suddenly there were seven high-spirited Spanish women laughing and joking and talking over each other and every ability I had to understand the language slipped right out of my grasp. I felt like my foot had been in the door of having a second linguistic identity, but it got suddenly slammed in my face. I remember feeling completely out of place, like despite all my hard work, I would never belong. On the other hand, my host mom’s family was united by their shared experiences and most [obviously], their common language.

Linguistic identity is also very important for uniting people, specifically the Valencians. Once a year, they celebrate a three-week-long festival called Las Fallas, and each element of this festival is detailed in a language that is spoken no where else in the world but the city of Valencia. Thousands upon thousands of natives attend the opening ceremony, called La Cremà, which is done almost completely in their own language, Valenciano, rather than Spanish. The festival kicks off with a video projection on the side of the Torres de Serranos narrated in Valenciano, and the phrase that marks the start of the entire festival is ¡Ja estem en falles! Being a part of the crowd this past year during La Cremà was a unique way to observe the unity linguistic identity brought to the Valencians. Although I couldn’t understand what they were saying, I could feel the excitement of the crowd as they shouted phrases in Valenciano and joined together to celebrate their most anticipated festival of the year.

Callie Schaden, “Linguistic Graffiti”, 2022

However, along with the importance of linguistic identity for relationships and unity, there hides the danger of taking it too far. At the end of World War I, Iowa Governor William Harding attempted to create unity through common language by banning the public use of foreign languages through a document called The Babel Proclamation. According to an article written by Stephen J. Frese, Harding claimed that losing one’s native language (in this case, German) was a “‘small sacrifice compared to the good it could do saving the lives of American boys overseas by curbing sedition at home’” (Frese), essentially saying that the use of their native tongue was an act of rebellion against the United States of America. The same article discusses this extreme example of linguistic identity, saying that people were even attacked on the street if they were heard speaking German. Naturally a time of war brings out a nation’s strongest demonstrations of allegiance to its country, but it is clear that Governor Harding’s proclamation had long surpassed the boundaries of patriotism when it made English, or “American”, as it is called in the document, the only legal language in Iowa. The harmful effects of this document may have created unity among some Iowans, but in reality it caused more harm than good.

In summary, I think Harding had the right idea when he said that the people needed a common language to bring them together. However, I think he came to the wrong conclusion. As I realized in Spain, linguistic identity is extremely important for building relationships and creating unity, but reaching across a language barrier is just as important for the same reasons. Harding wanted to bring people together by eliminating the use of any language other than English; I think in order to accomplish that goal we actually need to increase the use of other languages. So after reading a beginner’s thoughts on linguistic identity, here’s the application for today: Consider making someone else’s common language your common language.

Works Cited

Frese, Stephen J. Divided by a Common Language: The Babel Proclamation and its Influence in Iowa History. 2022. 10 June 2022.

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Callie Schaden is currently an English and Spanish student at Cedarville University. She grew up in a small town in Ohio and has expanded her horizons in El Salvador and Valencia, Spain, two places which have given her a love for the Spanish language and a desire to continue learning outside of her native tongue.

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