What Are The Links Between Language And Personal Identity?

In order to help your group to understand diversity, they must be made aware of the complexities of how language, culture, and identity are interwoven.

A diversity keynote speaker, such as Interlink Consulting Services inc., might be engaged to explain how ambivalence toward acculturation and assimilation into the mainstream public by marginalized groups is driven by the threat to their sense of self and potential loss of their personal identities.

How is language entwined with personal identity and inclusion within a cultural, ethnic, or social group?

An individual is immersed in their mother tongue from birth. It is the tool through which they have acquired a lifetime of knowledge and through which they have interacted and formed their identity within their language, ethnic, national, or social group.

In order to fully participate in society, a speaker of another language or a dialect of the dominant language of the society must acquire some ability to communicate in that language.

If the cultural norms of the society differ greatly than those of the language learner's own native culture, an ambivalence to participating in the mainstream culture may lead to a reticence in acquiring the dominant language.

This is especially true if the learner is from a cultural or ethnic group that is marginalized because of stereotypes associated with that group by the mainstream culture.

Acculturation or assimilation?

This ambivalence toward embracing a culture that disdains their own may lead to a complete withdrawal into ethnic enclaves where the learner's language and culture, which made them who they are, are valued and respected.

It may also lead to acculturation, which is a decision to embrace some aspects of the dominant culture and language but reject other aspects. This allows the learner to enjoy some of the main benefits needed to survive in the mainstream society.

Acculturation can also lead to a phenomenon known as "codeswitching." This is when a speaker straddles both cultural and language groups, switching from one language or dialect for family and friends and another for those outside of their language group.

Codeswitching allows the learner to participate in society while retaining their individual identity. At first, codeswitchers may mix the lexicons and grammar rules of the two languages to speak a hybrid language, but eventually become as adept at switching languages as they are in changing clothes.

Assimilation involves complete immersion in the new culture. The native tongue is used less frequently, and aspects of the language may be forgotten over many years. 

Assimilation is much easier for those from non-mariginlized groups whose culture is not too different that the one they have adopted.

The key to successful assimilation for those from marginalized groups to to value their languages and cultures while dispelling any stereo types that are propagated by demagogues seeking public office or those in the mainstream culture who are threatened by those who want to keep their own culture but fully embrace the positive values of the mainstream culture.