“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives”. Toni Morisson
Have you ever been in a scenario where you are afraid to speak your language because you can be judged by your accent? Often we hear that just Standard English should be spoken among us. But wait, let’s stop here. Who has the right or audacity to decide this? I think there is no such thing.
English is the most accessible language globally due to the mass influence of films, music, and the Internet. It is also mentioned that it is the most studied language and probably 20% of the world speaks it.
Regardless of these figures, there are no such things that there is just one English language that everyone should speak.
Last year, during the holidays I travelled to the United States of America to visit my family. One day while shopping and paying my bill, I was asked by the cashier: Where are you from? I said: Where do you think I am from? She replied: From Africa or Jamaica. So, I said, from both. Her expression said it all, confusion. I did not clarify it because it is not right that as a human being you always got to give an explanation. My answer was not rude since my ancestors are from both places as the cashier later acknowledged.
Yes, as soon as I open my mouth, that question is often asked. I do not get intimidated anymore because I think that language is part of our identity and culture. We are the ones who mold it according to our use and convenience. Lisa Delpit says “language plays an equally pivotal role determining who we are: it is The Skin that we Talk”.
I was born and grew up in an intercultural environment in the North Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, Central America, where two Afro ethnics and three Indigenous groups share territories, culture, language, literature, and more. I learned to speak my native language (English Creole) at home and my second (Spanish) at school, which is the official language.
During high school, Standard English was taught to us. I remember that in the classroom along with my friends we spoke “smoothly”, but once we were out for recess our Creole English or Spanish was back. I guess this can be called a mask of language, which is slipping from one language to another. This probably was the most normal thing for us.
My second sister has a Bachelor’s in Art (BA) degree in Spanish with a minor in Latin-American Studies. She teaches at a school in upstate New York, to 8th and 9th grade students. In various conversations with her, she had confirmed that for these students it is not the same scenario, as my high school, to change the language mask.
African American children can do it and understand both languages distinctly, but white kids just can cope with Standard English, not African American English.
In the book, The Skin that we Speak, Lisa Delpit describes in one of the chaptershow she was blown away when she heard her eleven year daughter (black) speaking African American English since Standard English was her mother tongue. She was worried that people were going to judge her based on the words she speaks. However, her daughter was confident saying, “Well that’s their problem”. Then Lisa realized that her words came back to her, “It doesn’t matter what other people think about you; you have to be who you are”.
Another lesson her daughter gave her was that it is important that you learn to “code switch” language according to the environment. I, personally, agree with this because it gives you the confidence and capacity to manage more than one language, and most importantly, not to be ashamed to speak your mother tongue. For example, if I am talking with a Jamaican sister, I can say pickniny referring to children, and she will understand me because they use it, too. as pickney.
Years ago, along with some young journalists, we produced radio reportage about Creole English in Nicaragua. It was interesting that when we were recording in the studio we did code switch according to the scrip. After all, that is part of our identity. Even though it is a rich linguistic phenomenon, a lot of people do not agree that it should be taught at school because they think it jeopardizes the learning of Standard English.
Likewise, this same factor occurs, for example in the United States, where there is a big debate from well-known people like Maya Angelou, Rev. Jesse Jackson and others who do not agree that African American English should be spoken at school. “You don’t have to go to school to learn to talk garbage”, said Jesse Jackson.
Despite the controversy of what language should be taught at school, without a doubt school curriculum and parents should encourage children to learn a second or third language beside continue speaking their mother tongue. Bilingualism or trilingualism is a plus because it gives a wider comprehension of the roots of your mother language and the opportunity to make a comparison between languages. Furthermore, it also gives you the chance to learn about the culture of languages.
I am proud to speak my Creole language, which has given me the opportunity to understand the syntactic of other languages and have a better approach to Standard English which is like my passport to communicate when I travel.
No language is correct or incorrect. Languages are part of communities. “We do language,” as Toni Morrison said. Worldwide, thousands of languages have died, so why should we let one more die?