Our language is one of the things that define us, one of the most important ones I would say. It may not say where you are from, it may not say how you look, it may not say what your expectations for the near or further future are; but it is, indeed, what describes your thinking and your speech. It is a tool for communication, to socialise. A tool to be who we are, and to define so.
Normally, the language that describes us is our mother tongue. But that could change when you are a little kid and your family moves to another country where the official language is different. That is the case of Olivia Laghi, a Spanish and Italian 31-year-old girl living in London since she was 5.
When she was a little kid, Olivia used to live in a little village from Spain called Quintana de la Serena. She learned Italian and Spanish at the same time, even though her first word was in Italian, she used to make her daily life in Spanish. She remembers her mom telling her that she used to mix the two languages without noticing and that her friends used to show her their confused faces, but Olivia would not understand why. She remembers it with a smile on her face and she says she still keeps doing so sometimes.
“Once I was at work when that happened, it was really funny. My mom was visiting me as a few years ago she moved back to Spain. When I got to work to the restaurant I used to work in, I started to speak in Spanish with some clients without realising. I remember them looking at each other and smiling and answering to me in Spanish. They ordered their food and everything, and it wasn’t until I got to the kitchen that I realised I wasn’t talking English but Spanish.”
Not every experience was full of laughter, when Olivia arrived to London for the first time. She remembers that she didn’t want to leave her friends and family behind and that she didn’t want to move to another country. So when she was a teenager, as a protest, she only spoke English, listened to American music, rejected everything that sounded or smelled Spanish or Italian, and, lamentably, upset because she couldn’t speak the language in which she had learned to speak and to sing. Her world was divided in two, the world of outside, of the college and of the friends, in which English was the way of communication; and the world of the house and the family, in which other traditions and values were obstinate. They were two worlds that were in the constant struggle.
“I confess to all sincerity that I had not even the most remote idea of which was my place nor who I was. Lucky for me, my parents never stopped stressing a strong ethnic identity and helping me to create a sense of pride and gave to me the valuable gift of being trilingual. But this way was full of tears and revolt.”
The search of the identity receives a special force in the adolescence when the links that tie our parents begin to come loose and the teenager starts wondering: who am I with respect of those who surround me? Olivia’s parents immigrated to London in 1992; they fought in a new and strange country, suffered and adapted to different customs, to a different language. And even though Olivia was rejecting it at the beginning, at the end, she understood the importance of her roots.
“My parents inculcated into me a sense of honor and of pride of being what I am, and of where I come from. They inculcated also the sense of the duty towards our adoptive country, also the love for the land I was born in and for my Spanish and Italian legacy.”
What made her change her attitude towards her parents’ identity and her self’s, was the idea of the possibility of losing her mother tongue. One runs repeatedly into people’s touching anecdotes that have had to forget their language to adapt to a new environment.Unfortunately, this oblivion leads often to the loss of their own roots. “The loss of their native language can result a person losing personal intimacy, such as the nearness to their family and their past”.And this loss of the language, which inevitably leads to the loss of the cultural identity, may obtain many dangerous implications.
“When we take the language from someone we take from her the regards, her curses, her praises, her laws, her literature, her songs, her proverbs, and her wisdom.”
Knowing our own identity is crucial for our development as people. Identity is what one is, his individuality, the condition to be a certain person. The social sciences define identity as the way in which people are described as members of a group and the way in which this image of themselves remains molded by their language and the social experiences that they live.
The culture, together with the language, is a characteristic that defines the identity of a person. The values, customs, and common histories that they characterise to a culture exercise; a deep influence on the way in which a person behaves, thinks and looks at the world.
“For me, so, the cultural identity includes everything relative to the person, to her sense of belonging, to her system of beliefs, to her feelings of personal value. It is the total sum of the manners of life forged by a group of human beings and transmitted from generation to generation. I am the cultural identity, and I have the right to know it and understand it. And on having realised who I am, it is probable that my conduct demonstrates positive features of identity.”
The language is inherent in the expression of the culture. It is a fundamental aspect of the cultural identity. By means of the language, we transmit and express our culture and its values. The language is a complex dance between internal and external interpretations of our identity. The words, the language, have the power to define and mould the human experience. It is precisely the language that allows us to give the name to our experiences, to the experiences that makes us who we are.