Language on the Move

An open mic opens up public conversations about migration, multilingualism, and transnationalism.

We live our lives through language, and it’s often assumed to be a direct index of who we are. But identity is more complicated than that. As we move and adapt to new contexts, which languages we speak, and with whom, changes. For one thing, there’s usually immense pressure (overtly or covertly enacted through official language policy and institutions such as schools) to “shift” to the majority language at the expense of home languages. This erases the historical multilingualism and diversity in the United States, such as indigenous cultures, Spanish as the first European language in the Southwest, hundreds of immigrant languages, and the development of regional and ethnic American English dialects. A renewed historical perspective illustrates the tension between lived cultural diversity and the recurrent myth of the United States as an “English-only” country. Immigrants can internalize language discrimination and/or maintain a strong sense of pride, sometimes simultaneously. And, of course, their children and grandchildren develop unique identities combining old and new cultural practices in which new languages, as well as maintaining or regaining heritage languages, are important. A recent proliferation of language, story, and community memory initiatives is increasingly bringing this rich diversity to light in the public domain. As language and identity are discussed in different channels—in the news, on social media, in traditional and contemporary arts—it’s important that we honor this conversation and recognize that it draws from daily life experiences common to our shared humanity.

Languages, like people, are on the move. And, whether traditional or newly learned, they open doors to connection and understanding.
Open mic participants spoke an impressive range of at least 35 languages and 5 dialects of American English. Conversation revealed language’s important role in family and heritage, and in cultural adaptation and maintenance. One family originally from Iran, shared the importance of language for opening doors and for family and cultural connections. The mother said,

I was raised in Iran so I speak Farsi, but I also speak English because I was raised bilingual, and I also speak French because Iran was very Francophile, and then now I’m studying Spanish once a week, because I find it to be a beautiful and useful language… [Being bilingual] opened a lot of doors, people are more hospitable when you visit their country and attempt their language.

From her daughter’s perspective, her family’s heritage language is important for maintaining family and cultural connections.

I speak Farsi and I’m learning French right now. Well, I like to talk to my grandparents, everyone in my family speaks Farsi when you go and visit them they’re like, “I’m so happy you speak Farsi,” they tell me all these stories in Farsi and I kind of know what their life is like in Iran.

Another visitor discussed the pressures of multilingual and multicultural expectations, noting that she shifts between Mexican and Salvadoran Spanish depending on whom she’s speaking to (which she symbolized through contrasting dialectal words for “dog”) and that she also feels pressure to be “American.”

Different words for dog: “perro” versus “chucho.” Amelia Tseng

Interns interviewed On the Move artists and performers about language in their lives and work. A Haitian dance ensemble spoke of language’s importance in cultural continuity and the ways in which they navigate language expectations. The troupe leader commented, “When I teach dance, I teach it with the language for them to understand what the dance is, how it’s done,  and how it’s taught, or how did you perform it. So if I say something like nago or ibo, [dance names] they need to know how to perform it so that they can perform it correctly.” A dancer, when asked if she would like her future children to speak Kreyol, made it clear that language is an important part of cultural connection and maintenance, noting that some things are lost in translation.

Some expressions, you can only say in Kreyol and you can’t say in English, they wouldn’t understand it. Let’s say you’re kinda irritated and you’re just like, you say “mes amis,” like that. In English you can’t say that. Like, there’s no word for that. It’s just saying that I’m irritated. Yeah, all my Haitians, they understand it.

Members also discussed navigating language expectations and negative attitudes towards complex multilingual behavior. One dancer explained,

It’s very interesting because growing up, even when you’re small and a baby and your first language is the first one that your parents speak to you, ours was basically English, Kreyol and French all at the same time. So growing up, in schools your teacher would tell you, that is the incorrect saying of how you say that. … You would almost speak like you’re speaking Kreyol, French, and English all in one sentence. So you might say something in English but you might finish out the sentence in Kreyol.

The complexity of language, culture, identity, and attitudes extends to dialects. Michelle Banks, native Washingtonian, long-time educator, and foundational member of the Latinegro youth theater group, commented, “Language is a huge identifying trait. … a very, very, very important cultural marker. And regionalisms and dialects are also very important cultural markers as well.” She noted that the DC accent is a marker of local identity rooted in the African American community but now spoken by many Washingtonians, including immigrants (Tseng 2015). Christylez Bacon, a DC artist, said, “I tell people my first language is DC, my second language is English, you know, the vernacular’s very important, sometimes with vernacular, it could be like someone else knows that we have we have a similar life experience.” He drew a direct parallel between dialect diversity and language diversity to describe DC English.

When I think about English and how my folks being from the South speak English and how we speak English as DC people from the hoods, it’s like looking at Portugal Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese. It’s like okay, this is the European one and then Brazilian Portuguese is where all the African influence comes in and then the reflexive verb changes to being in the front instead of in the back, and it just reminds me of that all the time in DC, you know certain words or the way in which we use these words, so they’re like English words but we just totally flipped them, this means something totally different.

The artists also emphasized multilingualism’s role in broader connection and communication. A young member of the Haitian dance troupe commented,

Knowing more makes you more intelligent and aware and you have different cultures. You have a variety of things, like I can have a variety of dinners than most people would do if they don’t have a different culture and stuff like that.

Michelle Banks critiqued the monolingual or “English-only” orientation in the United States, raising the provocative question of fear in national identity.

I think that’s very important [that parents pass on their language and heritage to their children]. And the number of people that I talk to who say things like, I wish my mother or I wish my father had shared the language with me, and they didn’t, and I don’t [speak it]. I think it was during the 2008 election, a woman called in, or a woman had a question at one of the town halls. And she was, like, raging about, “And they come and they speak these other languages and da da da,” and he [the respondent] says, “Well, what are you afraid of?” And I was like yeah! What are you afraid of? And I think that as simple as that is, that was one of the most profound things, one of the most important things I’d heard in a long time. What are you afraid of?

The open mics and interviews opened up new spaces for conversation and reflection on language and heritage that otherwise might be lost in the day to day. Participants appreciated the opportunity for reflection.

It is nice talking about these things, because we don’t have a lot of opportunities to do this. And like maybe that’s part of it … where people get so uptight about language, maybe if they would spend more time having these discussions, maybe there would be some understanding.

The language activities were an etic and emic experience for student interns as they reflected on their own lives: “My mother was born in Hungary, and Hungarian is her first language. As a refugee, she eventually journeyed to America before learning to read or write Hungarian well, which ultimately affected her relationships with family members over time.” For some, the interview process contributed to their interest in language revitalization and heritage languages. For others, the experience of interviewing and relating to strangers from a range of backgrounds was an exhilarating experience.

The Festival language activities invited public participants to lead discussions of language in human migration from a personal and historical perspective, and to interrogate its impact on communities and individuals. Together, they raised public engagement and awareness around these issues—key aims of the Smithsonian Institution and World on the Move initiative. Conversations revealed a strong sense that language, culture, and identity are related to heritage but are also a creative embodiment of complex, dynamic social identities. The United States is not monolingual; it is a place of multiple, mobile, transnational linguistic connections. Languages, like people, are on the move. And, whether traditional or newly learned, they open doors to connection and understanding. Public intellectual projects can be a powerful tool in advancing the issues of our times and our understanding of our shared humanity.

Amelia Tseng is assistant professor in world languages and cultures at American University and research associate at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Her research addresses language and identity in multilingual immigrant communities, focusing on the Latinx diaspora and Washington, DC. In addition to her published work, she has been featured on National Public Radio and WUSA 9.

We’ve teamed up the AAA’s public education initiative, World on the Move: 100,000 Years of Human Migration™ to run an ongoing series of articles on migration and displacement. You can find them all on the Anthropology News website.

Cite as: Tseng, Amelia. 2018. “Language on the Move.” Anthropology News website, September 18, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.973

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