Library West, 202C
Phone: (239) 590-7141
Drawing on class discussions of Tan's and Baldwin's essays in addition to your own views and personal experiences, write an essay of approximately 750-1000 words, wherein you discuss the role(s) of language (both positive and negative) in our world and its relationship to identity (individual and community). In other words, explore the power and purpose of language.
*Note: The topic sentence of each body paragraph is underlined.
Binding Ties, Song of Self: The Purpose and Power of Language
If you are fluent in a language, you probably don't give much thought to your ability to interact with others, to understand and be understood in your world. But what would happen if you lost your voice? Or if suddenly the language skills you have, that is your ability to read, write, and speak, were no longer sufficient to allow you to understand television and newspapers or to tell a waitress what you wanted to eat or a doctor what was wrong with you? What if your language actually caused others to discriminate against you? I suspect your perception of the importance of language would undergo a pronounced change.
Recently, I had an experience with language deprivation when I had laryngitis. The three days I was without my voice were frustrating, interminable, and evidence of the power and purpose of language. Early in her essay, "Mother Tongue," Amy Tan discusses this power of language. She writes, "it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth" (26). Though at times, I could whisper, people had difficulty hearing and understanding me, and I couldn't write my thoughts down quickly enough to meaningfully converse with others. In short, my lack of voice impaired my ability to express myself and to communicate and indeed participate in my world. Moreover, language, the combination of specific words in a particular order, not only empowers individuals to participate as members of a designated community, it is also a fundamental key in enabling individuals to establish and define the dimensions of their identity.
Language is the impetus that empowers individuals to forge ties that bind into a community, thus giving them personal, social, or cultural identification. In his essay, "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me What Is," James Baldwin defines language by pointing to its unparalleled power. He writes, "language is also a political instrument, means and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identity" (129). Baldwin points to the experience of the African slaves. Without a common language, they were unable to communicate with one another, but they evolved a language, which they used to articulate their common experience and form their own community. Indeed, the African Americans evolved a dialect of English that enabled them to describe their reality and establish their own distinct cultural identity.
Not only can language articulate a simple truth, one's command of it demonstrates a simple truth: without language, one is voiceless, with imperfect language, one is perceived as imperfect, and with standard language, one is superior, at least from the perspective of those who possess standard command of the language. Tan also examines this relationship of language to acceptance in a dominant community in "Mother Tongue." She goes on to give countless examples of this truth in action when she writes about how her mother was treated, "people in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her" (28). Why did they treat Mrs. Tan in such a disrespectful manner? For the sole reason that she spoke a simple, non-native variation of English, derogatorily referred to as "broken" or "fragmented" English. Indeed, this is the power of language: without standard language skills, one is identified as an outsider, often inaccurately perceived and unfairly discriminated against.
Yet identification with and acceptance in a community is not the only result of language acquisition. Baldwin and Tan both describe an unbreakable link between language and self-individuation. In other words, your experience with language shapes your sense of self-identity. Tan writes of the different Englishes she uses. Chiefly, she distinguishes between the simple form of English she speaks with her family and more complex version of the language she uses in her professional life. Though there was a time when Tan was embarrassed by her mother's English, she now sees things from a different perspective. She writes, "my mother's English is perfectly clear . . . It's my mother tongue. Her language, as I hear it is vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery. That was the language that helped shape the way I saw things, expressed things, made sense of the world" (27). The language that she once perceived as inferior, sub-standard, or broken, she now views as intimate, special, and representative of her mother's beautiful and insightful expression of herself and view of the world, which Mrs. Tan, in turn, taught her daughter. Her point is well taken.
Even if we are not multilingual, do we not all have a different mother tongue taught to us as children which has unconsciously shaped the way we see ourselves and our world? And do we not all speak our own different Englishes, calling upon them as the occasion and audience direct? Certainly, the language I call upon in a meeting with the president of the university differs from the language that I use with my colleagues, which is different from the language I speak with my friends or family, which differs from the language I use with my godchildren. It may be a matter of word choice or intonation or slang or content or purpose, but each is a different part of myself and my world.
Language is many things: the arrangement of words in a particular order, uttered in a certain way, denoting certain meaning, a political instrument which evokes images and emotion. Certainly, all of this is a description of the purpose and function of language. But at its most fundamental, language is quite simply the expression of self and the ability to share that expression with others. Baldwin and Tan both highlight the importance of language: to be without language is to be voiceless, and to be voiceless is to silence the song of the self.
Baldwin, James. "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What is?" Across Cultures. Eds. Sheena Gillespie and Robert Singleton. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999. 128-131. Print.
Tan, Amy. "Mother Tongue." Across Cultures. Eds. Sheena Gillespie and Robert Singleton. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999. 26-31. Print.