By concentrating on one, he was unable to understand differences of the other. He was being socialised mainly with an English social identity, with minimal Gujarati cultural influences so as to speed up his acquisition of English. I, in sharp contrast, had to gain understanding of the semantics and pragmatics of the languages and cultures and their respective differences at the same time. My disillusions of being able to speak “proper” Gujarati were brought to light as I prepared to undertake a GCSE examination in Gujarati.
I was fortunate to be taught by a lady born and brought up in the state of Gujarat in India, having lived in England for over a decade. Although there were no communication barriers/breakdowns (I have never visited India), it became evident that not only my Gujarati, but aspects of my culture were not typical of traditional Gujarati Indian culture. Generations of my family as far back as my great grandparents were born in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) and both my parents lived in East African countries until their mid-teens.
They were fluent in Swahili (East African local language, spoken and taught), Gujarati (spoken at home), and English (taught at school). Of the three languages learnt their knowledge of and, more so, competence at English was noticeably less evident even though they were taught it at school at the same time as Gujarati and Swahili, because they were not exposed to English culture they were unable to fully grasp the language and still make mistakes after living in the country for nearly 30 years.
This is supported by Michael Agar’s (1991) notion that “culture or background knowledge or member’s resources are what make the difference between the speechless master of L2 syntax and the L2 speaker who is communicatively competent in a non-native world. ” When referring to L2 he was referring to the second language learnt by an adult (after the critical learning period that ends at around i?? 11 years) in a setting where the learner’s first language (L1) is not ordinarily part of everyday life.
Agar approached second language acquisition as the study of interpretive frames which provide “a context in terms of which an expression makes sense, knowledge in terms of which the expression can be discussed, and links in terms of which the poetic echoes … can be made explicit … (offering) a useful systematic function in terms of which the analyst can make explicit a way to understand, a way to interpret, a problematic piece of language.
” His theory is based on Gadamer’s hermeneutic philosophy, claiming that some connections, when two languages come into contact with one another, are easy to formulate whereas other connections seem almost impossible to make. The parts of language that are difficult to make connections to are “puttied thickly into far-reaching networks of association and many situations of use (and) when one grabs such a piece of language, the putty is so thick and so spread out that it’s almost impossible to lift the piece of language out.
” He referred to these parts of language that make it difficult to connect with in relation to the other language it is brought into contact with as “rich points”. The failure of my parents to fully grasp the rich points of the English language is evident in their stunted ability to grasp certain concepts of the English language that are relative to the living within a totally English community. I had been aware of this for a long time but my Gujarati teacher had also helped to me realise that my Gujarati was stilted with Swahili words.
For example, the true Gujarati word for “iron” is “isthree” but I have always known it to be “paasi” (Romanised form of Swahili word for “iron”). It became evident that many words had been incorporated into “our version” of Gujarati (mostly nouns referring to household objects and food stuffs) as a result of my parents having native speaking home-help when living in East Africa. After consultation with peers with parents also from East Africa (many emigrated from there to England after the Revolution of the Seventies), I realised that a new dialect/edition/deviation of Gujarati had been formed.
The ancestors had assimilated and accommodated parts of East African language as well as East African culture as a result of their adaptation to their environment. This idea of assimilation and accommodation is a key factor of Piaget’s developmental theory, with the belief that children pick up new experiences and assimilate them into their schemas, leading to accommodation of these new schemas to fit the world they exist in (Piaget, 1970).
The accommodation of Swahili nouns into the spoken language of my parents which was then passed down to me led me to consider the Sapir-Whorf Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis and whether it applied in my case. Did the deviant language I had picked up mean that I thought in a different way to my peers in India? Although I had acquired Gujarati living within a society of people speaking the same language and following the same cultural values, were they necessarily the same as those of a native speaker of Gujarati from the state of Gujarat in India?
My Gujarati is also stilted with many English words and Caucasian friends often comment that the language I speak with my mother is semi-understandable as we speak in a “language” mixed with English interspersed with Gujarati, completely natural to ourselves. It does follow that my individual thought pattern follows a similar thread. I often find myself slipping into Gujarati when trying to explain things to people.
I have also caught myself “thinking” in Gujarati terminology and even when in midst of a conversation in English regarding a universal topic, sometimes I find it easier to explain what I mean to say in Gujarati. This supports the weak version of the Whorfian hypothesis that language users tend to sort out and distinguish experiences differently according to the semantic categories provided by their respective codes. Does this “new” language that most seem to British Asians identify with and understand signify a convergence (over time) to a multicultural language due to cohabitation in a culturally integrated society?
The term British Asian itself signifies a need for youth of Indian (now referred to as Asian) cultural heritage and background: born, brought up and currently living in Britain to identify with their British culture also (Valecha, 2003). It is an integration of cultures which is clearly evident in the language. Ask a young, Gujarati speaking “British Asian” the Gujarati word for “television” and most will reply “T. V. “, blissfully unaware that “doordarshan” is the correct answer. Such is the case with words like “computer”, “email”, “DVD” and other ‘modern’ technological words.
The incorporation of such words into the Gujarati spoken in England today is can also be seen in articles published in current events magazines and newspapers such as Garavi Gujarat (printed in Gujarati, written in England for British Gujarati people) and Gujarat Samachar. “Text language” is a very recent example of culture and language working together and changing each other yet again. A new craze/culture has developed as the result of the use of SMS text messaging initially introduced with the popularisation of mobile phones and assisted by the internet.
Due to ever-increasing costs and a character limit per message, a “text language” has emerged where people use abbreviated forms of words so they can fit more into each text message. There are even books that have been written, explaining what all the terms mean (Pope, 2002). Phrases such as ‘see you later’ are abbreviated to ‘c u l8r’, punctuation is often left out and a whole new method of expressing emotions (’emoticons’) through text messages has been invented. There are many symbols for expressing how one is feeling and even to express the tone of the comment made with: 🙂 = smiling, 😉 = winking, :-O = surprise being just a few.
Adults and children alike are indulging in the use of this new language and often can be seen to filter through to across nations with international roaming on mobile phones, holiday romances etc. A universal “text language” that is a product of a new technological culture therefore acting as evidence that to understand language is reflective of culture and the thought processes linked to that culture. Is it the changes in the language that are affecting the way we think or is it the case that language constitutes reality?
The development of “text languages” as described above suggests that as our thought patterns change and adapt, these changes are reflected in the ‘updated’ language, thus supporting the Whorfian claim that language influences thought. This idea of language influencing thought can be further discussed with reference to the Japanese language and comparing it to the English language. The Japanese language is filled with many different terms for saying the same thing – dependant on who is speaking, their status and the person they are speaking to.
The Honorifics of the language are reflected in the thought processes of the Japanese people and the way in which they act. Bachnik (… ) and her paper on the two faces of self and society in Japan described her return to a family she had lived with for five years, after fifteen years away from them. She was surprised to discover that despite having not seen the family she had grown very close to for fifteen years, they still followed social norms and practices when in company of other people regardless of the relationship or degree of familiarity she herself shared with the guests.
To compare the form of social action to English/British trends it can be said that s the language suggests there is no form of linguistic respect. Growing up in England (a Brit with an Indian cultural upbringing) I was always instructed by my parents to call all my friends’ mothers “auntie” as a mark of respect for elders and was understandable surprised to find my Caucasian British counterparts address my mother by her first name. Gujarati also has actual words in the language to signify respect (similar to the use of ‘tu/vous’ in French and ‘du/sie’ in German.
When speaking with people you ar expected to respect (usually those in positions of authority, elders and strangers) the word ‘tame’ is used to refer to that person whereas when speaking to a peer or somebody younger than you, the word ‘tu’ is used. By the 16th century, the written form of the English language was standardised and English literature, especially from then forth, can be used to chart the influences of social changes that were taking place in England (Pope, 2002). English did used to have terminology that showed some linguistic differences in terms for “respect” and this is hugely evident in Shakespearean literature.
English literature has been used by historians and others as evidence of languages reflecting social status. Using the, now out-of-use, pronoun ‘thou’ to refer to someone signified that the speaker thought themselves to be of higher social status than the person they are speaking to. If the ‘thou/you’ difference was as reference to social status, then it is possible to suggest that honorific morphemes indeed did not and have not existed in the English language since “honorifics have little to do with…
class stratification, but a lot to do with respect one wants to convey to the other” Irvine (1998). As a result of technological inventions and with the gradual social abolition of the western class system and the English (1642-51) and American (1861-65) civil wars resulting in the equal rights for women, slaves and the others, the use of pronouns such as ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ ceased to occur by native/non-native speakers of English. All speakers of the English language now referred to each other as ‘you’.
This is also evident when reading English literature. It seems then that language can be seen as a medium for representing changes taking place in the world over time. Countries in the western world are increasingly becoming multicultural societies and media (newspapers, television, and films) representation of cultures may have been instrumental in the incorporation of new frames by which to understand the “rich” points of language that previously seemed difficult to comprehend.
Television channels are increasingly producing documentary style features on popularly unfamiliar cultures with the example of a programme broadcast by the BBC which had Ian Wright (a famous football player) going to Africa and spending a week living amongst a tribe and having no contact with members of the ‘outside world’ he was able to understand the rituals of the tribe even though there was a lack of verbal communication and indeed understanding.
The emergence of international films produced and directed by as well as starring individuals that exist within the culture they wish to educate the world about (Chinese born director Ang Lee directing the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and releasing it as a Hollywood blockbuster) can be said to have had the intended effect. Many critics of the film berate it because they cannot identify with the thought pattern of the Eastern Culture.
The film was heavily filled with instances where honour (in a variety of different contextual meanings of the word) was the reason for seemingly insensible actions of the characters. The film dramatises and makes available for viewing the aspects of culture that were previously only understood through literature. With societal popularisation and increasing interests of cultures different to our own, the western world is striving to use all methods of communication to bring knowledge and understanding of cultures to light.
Films like “East is East” and “Bend it like Beckham” are aimed to highlight the difficulties encountered by British Asians brought up with strict Indian cultural values in the home and the cultural values they have gained living amongst people of varying cultures. Theatre productions such as Bombay Dreams (a play about the difficulties of an Indian actor) produced by one of Britain’s leading producers Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber have been successful due to musical and wardrobe related collaboration with artists of Indian background and the script being written by a well-known British author who has encountered these cultural conflicts first hand.
With media bringing together cultures with the specific aim of creating deeper understanding, it is indeed possible that rich points in a language may be solved and connections may be made through the exposure of actions and values and rituals of a community. In conclusion, it can be said that Whorf’s claim that the language we speak influences that way we see the world and understand it hold true. My ability to think in Gujarati contrasted with my brother’s inability highlights the importance of cultural setting in language acquisition.
Difficulties in understanding of other languages may be attributed to the lack of knowledge about the cultural associations heavily linked to that piece of language. And finally with media communication bringing together different cultures and educating the world, it is possible that a convergence to a “world language” will happen over time.
References: Pope, R. (2002) The English Studies Book: An Introduction to Language, Literature and Culture 2nd Ed. Routledge: London and New York Kramsch, C. (1998). Language and Culture. Oxford University Press. Ochs, E (1997). ‘Cultural Dimensions of Language Acquisition’, in Coupland, N.
and Jaworski, A. (Eds. ) Sociolinguistics, Hants: Macmillan Press Ltd. Gross, R (1992) Psychology The Science of Mind and Behaviour. 2nd Ed. Hodder and Stoughton. Agar, M (1991). ‘The Biculture in the Bilingual’, Language and Society, 20, 2 pp 169-81. Snow, C (1979) ‘Conversations with Children’, in Fletcher P. and Garman M. (Eds. ) Language Acquisition Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hymes, D. (1974) Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. Culture Thought and Language Student Number: 151381.