Forget Maintaining Multiple Languages: What About Maintaining Cultural Identities?
- Written byDonovan Nagel
- Read time6 mins
We just got back from Ireland.
As I said recently, we decided to travel back to Ireland to spend some time in Munster (mostly in Kerry and Cork) including the Gaeltacht areas there.
It was great to be back!
Although I was in Ireland just a few years ago for my Irish immersion course in Donegal (briefly), I was sad to miss out on getting a chance to head down to Cork to visit my old home (I used to live there about a decade ago). This time it was high on my priority list.
It was an emotional experience for me actually.
Something occurred to me as I was reflecting on the way I felt when I arrived back in Cork city after so many years that I wanted to share today.
Let me know if this is something you can relate to.
The best language learners are the ones who truly practice assimilation
First let me recap on something.
Assimilation is a dirty word for some.
In politics it’s the antithesis of multiculturalism (the notion that cultural identities can maintain their otherness, yet coexist harmoniously under a shared, superficial identity). Along this line of politics, I can move to (let’s say) Russia, learn to speak Russian, perhaps even identify as Russian in a legal sense and yet feel no compulsion to ever change or adapt.
Assimilation on the other hand says that if I move to Russia, I make every effort to become Russian.
I cast off my Australian identity (at least while I live there).
It’s not just about respect – although that’s a big part of it – but also about demonstrating commitment and humility.
Assimilators demonstrate their respect for and desire to be part of the host culture. Assimilators prove that they love the people they’re learning to communicate with.
Where multiculturalists come with the mindset of ‘I’m here to teach you about my culture’, assimilators come with the mindset of ‘I’m here to learn about your culture.’
One is cultural snobbery. The other is cultural humility.
This is why I believe (and have seen time and time again in my own travels) that assimilators are inevitably better language learners.
When you depart from a culture that you’ve assimilated into, there’s always a part of you that’s missing
You become a permanently ‘fractured’ person.
“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” – Charlemagne
You might have seen this quote floating around (I’m not sure if it’s accurately ascribed to Charlemagne).
In fact, I’ve said many times before that learning a foreign language is creating a new persona – another ‘you’. My very first Arabic teacher used to say this to me all the time that after learning Arabic I’ll have “another Donovan”.
Of course you’re always the same person but in adopting a new way of communicating, you take on new traits, mannerisms and behaviors.
You might even adopt new values and see the world through different eyes.
But what happens when it’s time to move on or go home. Do you just forget about it?
What about when you acquire multiple new personas?
Something I’m feeling more and more lately is that it makes it incredibly challenging to settle and just treat them as past experiences rather than parallel lives.
Does this sound familiar to you at all?
The psychological effect of having multiple linguistic and cultural identities
We can only choose so many paths.
We only have so much time and we can only be in one place at a time.
I’ve lived in a lot of countries for mid to long term, learned the languages to a high level, assimilated deeply into those cultures, and then faced the inevitable point at which I had to leave.
You become deeply entrenched into a place, a community, a language and then just like that – it’s severed.
Whether it’s going home or to another country, you find yourself disoriented and feeling as though as a part of you has been ripped out and left behind. I’ve always found this especially hard with Egypt and Arabic – living in places like South Korea and Russia, I had a constant desire to be back in Egypt.
There are a few places that I’ve found enormously hard to let go of (and may never fully let go of).
Sure, you can keep in touch on social media with old friends and you can go back and visit (as I just did in Cork) but it’s not the same. You go there to visit and while there’s something inside you saying “this is home”, you know it’s not.
To paint a grim analogy, it’s a bit like having a dream of a deceased loved one – you get that fleeting moment of comfort having the person you love back and then they’re gone again.
By the way, this might be hard to relate to if you live close by the country and visit it frequently.
This may sound crazy:
I occasionally envy people who have never moved abroad.
There’s a peace and simplicity about leaving certain things unknown.
For with much wisdom comes much sorrow,
the more wisdom, the more grief.
– Ecclesiastes 1:18
You don’t really know what you’ve missed out on if you’ve never left home (or is it that we’re the ones who missed out by traveling too much?).
The question is not “how do I maintain multiple languages?” but rather “how do I maintain multiple identities?”
The question about multiple language maintenance gets brought up all the time online.
“How do I keep up with all my languages?”
I think it’s the wrong question to be honest (at least for me it is).
The question should be:
“How do I perpetuate my assimilation into all these cultures and never lose my ‘Koreanness’, ‘Egyptianness’, ‘Russianness’, etc.?”
This is the real challenge and I’m not even sure if it’s practically possible over the long term, the more I think about it.
It’s really nothing to keep up with basic language maintenance and go over vocabulary here and there, have an occasional conversation, or watch an occasional film to keep the language fresh in your mind.
That’s the easy part.
The challenge is to not lose that other you – that “second soul” that you developed by assimilating into your host culture. It’s out of THAT that your language abilities and motivation flow.
I’ve found for example with Korean that the more I’ve drifted from Korean culture and kind of let go of my ‘Koreanness’, the more my Korean has suffered over the past 2 years.
It’s not lack of language exposure or practice.
It’s just a gradual drift away from Koreanness due to other language projects, time constraints and geography.
So can you maintain multiple linguistic and cultural identities?
Like I said, we only have so much time and we can only be in one place at a time. My problem is that there are so many good options and I wish I could pursue all of them to the fullest.
Eventually it comes down to deciding and prioritizing what matters most.
There are some things that I’ve invested a year of my life into (e.g. Korean) and others that I’ve invested my entire adult life [15+ years] into (Arabic).
I think it’s about choosing what we’re prepared to let go of and what we can never let go of.
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Insightful. Functional linguistics emphasizes the fact that language only has meaning in situational contexts, and—something you’ve picked up on through experience—situations are only meaningful in a cultural context. Use of a language implies a cultural context in which that language functions to accomplish various cultural activities, and these can’t always be boiled down to universal human behaviours.
Thank you for sharing this! It describes a feeling that I’ve been suffering from recently that I’d not been able to put into concrete form. Your final words are the conclusion that reached too. The simple act of sharing the feeling helps alleviate the struggles of the fractured soul/multiple identities.
AMAZING post.... AMAZING and inspired!!!! Thank you so much for posting this!
Thanks Rose. :)
Several years ago I was learning both Spanish and Russian. But at a certain point I decided that Russian was more interesting, so I dropped Spanish. It’s really about figuring out what’s important to you and then acting accordingly.
I cannot imagine the difficulties managing more than 2 languages at the same time!
I love this.