Losing identity


Raghad A. Al-Amri

THE Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” It is not the eradication of a mother tongue that will make you see the world, because how would you see the world if the world cannot see who you really are?

Respecting your mother language means that you respect yourself, traditions, country and your people. By forgetting your mother tongue you intend to forget yourself and all of the above. In fact, learning another language is a great thing, but trust me it will never give you an identity.

A person is always stuck between two things: the language he or she speaks and his or her real nationality. A person might, for example, speak English but at the same time one will be proud of his or her mother tongue and that will show how educated one is. On the other hand, people who speak different languages to the ones they were born with and are therefore unable speak a word of their mother language will make people confused.

Furthermore, if you, for instance, speak English and you are Saudi and cannot speak Arabic, then you are absolutely not from America because your passport shows that you are 100 percent Saudi. The question then remains, who you are? This is the question that comes to people’s minds first. They will wonder about your real identity, so believe me this is not how to earn their respect.

People immigrating to the United States consider English as a means of enjoying a more fulfilling lifestyle. They believe that their ability to speak English makes them closer to their dream of a better life. Therefore, the parents strongly encourage their children to learn English.

At the same time, parents do not want their children to learn English at the expense of losing their mother tongue. They want them to be successful in American society but they should keep their mother language, culture and identity.

However, for children, maintaining two different cultures, the native culture and the American culture, can be confusing because they are two different lifestyles.

The environment in which a child lives has a great effect on his or her culture and identity. In a book published by Asako Yamada-Yamamoto and Brian Richards, titled “Japanese children abroad, cultural, educational and language issues,” it is said that young children are dominated by Japanese in their preschool years.

They only use Japanese to communicate with their parents, siblings and friends. Moreover, they are exposed to a great amount of audio-visual sources in Japanese. Their parents aspire that they learn English as a second language, but they also feel it is important for them to learn Japanese as they would be returning to Japan in the near future and need to maintain their culture and identity.

Another way in which a child can maintain and develop his or her first language is through daily conversations within the family setting. By talking in the first language, children can increase their vocabulary and become able to express themselves clearly.

Children have to learn English, but they should not be required to do so until their native languages are stable enough to handle the inevitable encounter with English. Even then, teachers and parents must work together to try to mitigate the harm that can be done to children when they discover that differences are not welcome in the social world represented by the school.

However, there are many immigrants who feel it is not important to maintain their native language. Lebanese immigrants living in Cleveland, Ohio, talk about the identity issue. They do not have any interest in their native language, Arabic, because they are looking forward to a new identity.

They do not even speak Arabic to their children because they think that it would affect them learning English. In this community, children speak only English to their parents and the parents sometimes respond in English and at times in Arabic.

Immigrants should try to maintain their language and identity by establishing community language schools. For example, when Punjabi parents in Britain noticed that their children were starting to lose their language and culture, they opened centers where children could learn more about their culture, religion and develop their native language. In addition, they went to mosques to learn Arabic in order to be able to read the Qur’an.

Furthermore, Arab immigrants tried to maintain their Arabic language in the United States. In 1921, a priest in Rhode Island, USA, taught Arabic to 156 students every day. Recently, there has been a tendency in Arab immigrants to teach Arabic to their children, either through bilingual education programs in public schools in some districts, or in community schools such as those established by mosques or Arab individuals.

Children’s attitudes towards maintaining their mother tongue and acquiring a second language is influenced by their parents’ attitudes towards the two languages. How parents view language, identity and culture will definitely shape children’s views.

The phenomenon of learning English has become a disease that affects many parents from different Arabic countries. It is upsetting to see Arab parents talking in English with their children in public places and even at home. Parents have no right to take away their children’s real identities and replace them with a new and fake identity that causes them to lose their culture and forget who they really are.

This happens when they are sent to international schools where they are unable to choose between learning their mother tongue and a foreign language, not to mention if they are Muslims and not taught how to read the Qur’an.

Research was carried out by a group of researchers at a local university in the Kingdom using a sample 600 parents from four Saudi cities. The research showed that most parents prefer to enroll their children into international schools and that the main reason behind this is that the medium of teaching from the elementary until the secondary grades is in English.

Another survey conducted by Muhammad Al-Khaldi, a professor of education at Umm AI-Qura University, showed that more than 70 percent of Saudi parents would enroll their children into international schools whereas 18 percent refused the idea.

This brings me to mention a very kind Arab friend of mine who used to study at an international school where the education was completely in English. She would speak Arabic at home with her parents and so knew some Arabic. However, when it comes to the real world in which everyone speaks Arabic she is made to feel like a foreigner.

She speaks Arabic with a terrible accent and cannot identify with other Arab girls. She did not get to choose, but I am sure that if she had a choice she would have opted to be proficient in her mother tongue so that she could identify with other people and fit in.

I hope that people would take pride and express loyalty to their mother language and not obliterate the Arabic identity from our future generations who are going to be our leaders and representatives of Arabic culture in the future.

Foreign cultures are very different from Saudi culture, both socially and religiously. One needs to benefit from the modern sciences that these cultures offer, but one should also be careful to avoid the negative aspects of these cultures such as alcoholism, drug abuse and sexual freedom, and maintain their Islamic and Arabic identity.