Not many people would argue against the idea that language and culture are completely entwined. People like me, who have had to learn a second language, are especially well aware of the deep association between the two.
Language is how I identify with the Vietnamese culture, not by attending Tet in Seattle (the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration) or eating pho! Any white person can say how great the latter two are but not many can do it while speaking Vietnamese.
When I speak, I’m not merely communicating. I’m expressing my traditional practices and beliefs through words. When I use certain metaphors, I’m saying something about my culture’s values and history. So it is by no coincidence that certain works of literature can define entire civilizations, like China’s “Four Great Classical Novels” or Vietnam’s “Tale of Kieu”.
Many subtle cultural cues appear through what we say, like the Chinese’s greeting of “Have you eaten?” and the Japanese attention to seasonal words and the hundred or so Vietnamese pronouns.
For most ethnic minorities living abroad, who must inevitably adapt to the society in which they live, language is even more important in its ability to connect and preserve the native culture. The problem arises specifically for the generation that grows up away from their traditional homelands but wishes to maintain a multicultural lifestyle (e.g. Chinese-American, French-Vietnamese, Japanese-Canadian, etc). When language plays such a vital role in cultural identity, can people who speak only one language fully present themselves as multicultural?
At a recent community presentation of a project assessing the strengths and aspirations of the local Vietnamese population, I watched a group of young men and women reveal how working on the project had brought them “closer to their community”. However, I noticed only one out of the group actually spoke in Vietnamese. I was even more perplexed when two members declared they did not feel comfortable speaking Vietnamese because they could not do it well. Clearly, they recognized the importance of speaking Vietnamese but failed to do so. The project found that an overwhelming number of youth and adults surveyed agreed on the importance of cultural preservation. Working on this project no doubt strengthened these youth’s cultural awareness but for those who could not speak Vietnamese, this handicap also hindered their progress.
The same issue can be found among the younger generations of other minority groups where a popular lament can always be heard coming from teenagers, “The older folks never listen to us!”
I’m sure they listen. They just can’t understand English. Perhaps if communication is done using the same language, more could be achieved. Just don’t expect the older folks to learn a new language any time soon.
But although much impetus is placed on the youth to maintain cultural ties, the job of teaching language, and in essence, passing on culture, is in the hands of the older generation. Everyone knows that young children soak in their parents’ language naturally. When parents and grandparents, choose to forgo this crucial opportunity to instill their native language in their children, they essentially allow a major part of their culture to slip away.
Going back to the presentation earlier, the older attendees listened and watched through it all with hopeful smiles on their faces despite probably not understanding a word. When it was over, a young woman who had previously spoken in English stood alone in front of the crowd and, though wobbly and with difficulty, spoke in Vietnamese to thank the audience for their time and support. The room erupted in cheering and applause.
Through the noise, I heard an older gentleman behind me shout, “You spoke great Vietnamese!”