Speak For Yourself: Language as Identity

I must sound so strange to you in Farsi.” 

44-year-old Marjan is an Iranian woman with a Farsi heart and an English tongue. Having spent countless years in Manchester, England, she now teaches a group of students who are preparing for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Forced to immerse themselves in a foreign language, the students soon become hyper-aware of their sense of self—or, rather, their lack thereof. Despite spending hours in class digesting Marjan’s teachings, the students struggle to see her as more than a well-intentioned language barrier. Language, then, reveals itself to be deeply rooted in identity—in English’s classroom and beyond. 

When we are born, we are cradled and cooed at with syllables we don’t recognize. With time, these syllables string themselves into feelings. A booming voice shakes the nerves; a quiet sentence pacifies a tantrum. These feelings soon form opinions, decisions, personality; we learn to use the syllables to communicate our needs and share passing thoughts with others. Suddenly, language becomes collaborative: we form jokes, cultivate comfort, find joy. Who are we without this humor, this grief, this warmth? How are we to feel these things in a language we don’t recognize? If we are raised in one language, is it possible to find safety in a new one? 

While new languages can feel stiff and unknowable, being monolingual—especially if your family has a different home language—can have deeply personal consequences when we don’t learn our heritage language. Particularly in communities of color in diaspora, learning a heritage language can be essential to building a common experience with others; those who don’t learn the language are often unable to participate in a cultural conversation as well. This dynamic springs from an assumption that people who don’t learn a heritage language aren’t invested in—or even respectful of—the early traditions of a culture. (For example, immigrant children may be accused of “not really” being a part of the community or of otherwise representing previous generations poorly.) 

At the same time, children who do not speak their family’s heritage language can both find comfort in and grieve the loss of what they don’t understand. The sounds of a foreign dialect can feel soft, smooth, and familiar, but full of intention instead of communication. In some cases, parents of color choose to raise their child in English as an act of love and defense. Why teach your child to use one language if they will only be respected in another? 

More than 70 countries now honor English as their dominant language, and over a quarter of the world’s population speaks it proficiently. It has become the common tongue of international entertainment, business, education, and diplomacy. Some argue this is good for global unity; others fear what this implies about Western hegemony. In what contexts is learning English an exciting feat versus a means of survival? Where is the line between a love for language-learning and a weapon of erasure? As native English speakers think more critically about power structures and colonization, does leaning into the convenience of shared communication equal complacence and erasure? 

As the play progresses, Marjan sinks deeper into herself until she is swallowed whole. “Maybe it is ridiculous what I do,” she reckons aloud. My English, my Farsi—these two languages, they [war] in my head. And the Farsi is winning. I feel like I am disappearing.” Maybe, though, there is a world where language can feel restful. With thoughtfulness, it can cultivate peace rather than power. It can be a beautiful thing to be eaten alive. 

 Dom Ocampo