Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Language and Identity

At the Dean's Luncheon this past Tuesday, several Southern Scholar's presented their Senior Projects to some of the most brilliant minds on campus. Science, Religion, English, and History teachers filled the room. A few isolated students were mixed in, their youth exacerbated by the intelligence that surrounded them.

The first scholar, a science major, presented a complex research project that had something to do with chemical reactions and heat. The title was long, complicated, and completely foreign to me: "Activation Energy of the Formation of the Allylic Carbocation in the Dehydration of the 4-Methylcyclohexanol in Concentrated Sulfuric Acid". Numbers, letters, percentages, and long, hyphenated words slid from her mouth like melted butter. As she spoke, I attempted to mentally translate what seemed like an alien language into something that I could identify with. ... .... Nope, nothing. I'm sure her research was fascinating with a host of practical implications, but I was completely lost. It meant nothing to me because I had no conceptual base or framework from which to process the information. I'm a nursing major. I deal with sick people not "Allylic Carbocation in the Dehydration of 4-Methylcyclohexanol." It was like I was wandering upside down and inside out in a world where everything was composed of something that I had never seen before with foreign creatures making unintelligible noises that I couldn't hear.

The last presentation was done by an English/International Studies major. Interestingly enough, she had written a set of three essays about identity, with experiences from her travels as a student studying abroad. What composes our identity and what happens when one or more of those components are missing? One element was language. As she shared, it became apparent that language is essential to the expression our identity; our personalities, our goals and dreams, and just who we are as a person. Having spent a year in a Spanish speaking country, the presenter was acutely aware of the frustrations that come from the language barrier. Using Hellen Keller's experience as an example, she showed how language and the ability to communicate loosens chains that bind expression and silence the melody of a soul. It gives our identity a precious freedom to just be.

As I was about to fall asleep last night, these two presentations kept running through my mind. The language of the first presentation, while comprehensible to a few, meant nothing to me. Communication didn't happen. This did not indicate any lack of ability on the presenter's part; she knew the language just fine. The obstacle came when the presenter spoke a different language than that of the audience.

Each one of us has a language. It's more of a life-language than an actual verbal dialect. Its vocabulary is made up of our interpretation and reaction to our individual experiences. Our past influences how we respond to the present and how we react to others. It colors everything we do. We can't escape from it. It's our language. It's inborn, instinctive, and unconscious. It affects the advice we give and how we respond to advice received. The friendships we seek, the things we value, our goals and dreams - they all are inexplicably intertwined with our own individual language made up by our past. This language and view on life composes our identity.

Just as difficulties presented themselves when the languages being used to communicate were not the same, so also do probems arise when we think everyone else speaks the same life-language we do.

Solution? Learn a new language. I could take some science classes and, within a few years, be just as proficient with those long words and technical sounding jargon as that Southern Scholar. I would be able to converse on these topics with relative ease, able to understand just how each small piece fits into the puzzle of the world. In dealing with life and humans, I can stop assuming that everyone speaks the same life-language as I do and seek to learn their language. I can find out what past experiences have influenced their identity and how it affects their current actions. I know that seems like such a simple conclusion for such a complicated lead-up. But it's harder than it looks. It takes effort. More effort, sometimes, than I want to give.

But there is another side to the story because every once in while, someone comes along who speaks the same language as you. It won't ever be exactly the same, because no one has had exactly the same experiences that you've had, but it could be a similar dialect, a cousin to your own. Their experiences resonate with yours. Something clicks and communication happens. It flows, a refreshing rush of comprehension. Sometimes it's like a waterfall - an attempt to pour it all out while you can. Other times it's a steady stream, constant and plentiful. This type of a connection is rare and shouldn't be taken for granted. It is a gift.


Kelsey said...

Christy, I really enjoyed this blog. It reminds me of the quote I read in my leadership and management book about communication. I am so excited that education isn't contained solely in books because it means we can learn actively.

sarah said...

good thoughts

bekah said...


Emily said...

listen to:

Christy Joy said...

Emily, that link is SO cool! Thanks for sharing! I wonder if there are similar things in our language that alter our view of the world.

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