WHAT HAPPENS WHEN LANGUAGES ARE LOST? AN ESSAY ON LANGUAGE ASSIMILATION AND CULTURAL IDENTITY
Lily Wong Fillmore
University of California, Berkeley
Language figures in any discussion of cultural identity, which is not surprising, since the two are closely connected. The language of a people evolves out of their experience: it reflects, not only their origins, but their history, their perspectives, their relationships to other peoples, and their uniqueness as well. In fact, for many people, language is inseparable from cultural identity since it is the means by which members of communities communicate with one another, and how individuals establish that they are, in fact, members of the same cultural community.
In our society, the question of language and cultural identity is often a painful one. American society is composed of peoples from diverse linguistic and cultural origins, both native and immigrant. We are an English-speaking society, but for many Americans, English does not reflect our heritage or our primary cultural affiliation. The language is someone else's. It evolved, in the sense that I have characterized the connection between language and culture, out of someone else's experience; it reflects their history and relationships, not our own. This may not be problematic for some people, but it is for many others. It is especially so for those who have lost their own languages, and who feel less connected to their heritage than they would like to be. This is often the case for second generation Americans, especially those who lose their primary languages in the process of learning English. It is a problem that is felt keenly by many American natives, people who lost their languages through the process of forced linguistic assimilation. For them, the question of language and cultural identity is a particularly painful one. Can a people really be connected to its culture, its history, its heritage without its language? What does it mean to lose a language?
That question is the subject of this essay; it is a subject that touches on the experience of many Americans, in one way or another. Let us begin by considering a unique____________________