Language is an integral part of any culture and is often seen as one of the strongest identifying factors for any cultural group. Preserving one’s language and culture is, to a degree crucial for preserving the identity of a people. As the world becomes smaller and more people grow up outside of their country of birth, many children of first-generation immigrants are not being taught their mother tongue. Some contend that is causing the systematic dilution of many of the world’s cultures.
The issue of language as a part of identity is something that a few Hollywood stars have had to contend with. A few years ago, I read an article on the Latino community in the United States of America questioning Jessica Alba’s claim to her Latina heritage because she could not speak Spanish. The third-generation Mexican-American defiantly responded to the criticism of her Spanish-speaking skills with a barrage of provocative statements. She has been quite outspoken about the fact that she believes it should not be held against her. At the same time, she has always expressed a deep sense of pride in her family history but was never taught to speak Spanish growing up.
Similarly, Naya Rivera, Rosario Dawson and Selena Gomez are also among the many Hollywoood personalities of Latino descent who are not fluent in Spanish. Some of them observe many of the practices undertaken in their countries of origin and have articulated a desire to speak the language fluently. Like Alba, they feel that whether or not they speak Spanish should not define them as Latinos. The rest of Hollywood and the USA generally sees these celebrities as Latino despite the fact that some Spanish-speakers reject them because they may not consider them to be true representatives of the Hispanic community in the USA. A few of these stars have also voiced a reluctance to speak Spanish in public for fear of ridicule and judgment.
I can to a large extent empathise with the criticism Latinos in Hollywood endure. I’m a second-generation immigrant who never picked up her mother tongue fluently. At times I’ve faced condemnation for claiming that I am a Zambian when asked the question: “where do you come from?” Some people have said I’m not a “proper” African because I can’t speak any indigenous Zambian languages fluently. Personally, I don’t feel that I have to speak any Zambian language to be considered a true Zambian. Due to circumstances beyond my control, it was never to be. I’ve since established that immigrant parents don’t pass on their language to their offspring for a variety of reasons including to help their children fit in to their new environment or to talk about them without them knowing LOL. Whatever the reason, it’s not fair to slate someone for not being able to speak his or her native language.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I was born in the United Kingdom to Zambian parents. Although I can’t speak either of my parents’ languages fluently I have a good ear for my mother’s language – Bemba. Trying to speak it has always been a challenge for me so I often respond in English when spoken to in Bemba. My parents have made a number of attempts to teach my brother and I their languages, mum more so than dad. However, they regret not making a more concerted effort to teach us when we were much younger which they regret and I am also slightly saddened by. This is probably related to the fact that I sometimes feel like I don’t truly belong. Generally-speaking, it would be great to be able to speak to my relatives in vernacular just to feel a little closer to them although many of them do speak English anyway.
At present, I’m a little more reluctant to become fluent in Bemba. Whenever I have attempted to speak the language I’ve been met with mockery from some of my friends and relatives. This can be off-putting at times so I understand the hesitancy to publically speak Spanish on the part of celebrities like Selena Gomez. It may not be too late to pick up either Bemba or my father’s language, Lenje, fluently but I see little reason in doing so. As far as my future life plans go, I don’t see myself settling permanently in my country of origin so I don’t believe it’s completely necessary for me to learn it as harsh as that may sound. But this does not mean that I’m not proud of my Zambian heritage. Frankly, I do not believe that learning a Zambian language will make me any more Zambian than speaking English as a first language makes me feel any more British.
Language is something that can be used to shame, exclude and belittle people. Not speaking a language can, but, should not be a barrier to fitting in within your cultural group. It should not give people license to deliberately exclude another person or label them a phoney. Cultural identity encompasses many different aspects. As important as language may be it is not the only defining factor when it comes to culture and within one culture there can exist many variants. In the interests of keeping many of world’s indigenous languages alive perhaps I, and others like me, ought to make more effort to learn our native languages in spite of the scorn we may face. At the same time, if my own parents did not see the merit in preserving their language or did not give it much thought I feel that I should not be expected to want to pick it up fluently. In an age where we are becoming more blended and cross-cultural relationships are increasingly prevalent, the ability to speak the language of your native country shouldn’t play a huge role in determining your identity.