Language Is The Level By Which We Navigate Through Life
Fredrick Douglas in his essay “Learning to Read and Write.” Reflects upon how he learned literacy with no teacher. Amy Tan’s essay deals with her discovery of not just speaking Chines and English, but speaking two different Englishes depending on context. In language, we learn from the world around us. In my personal experience of growing up in South Korea, I first learned to speak Korean, and did not even realize that there were other languages until I was older, when I was then taught English in school. While I do well with English, I do not feel the same level of comfort while speaking it as I do when I am speaking my native language.
Allow for an analogy to better explain what is meant by this. In my youth I owned a rabbit. It lived in a spacious rabbit hutch. During my time as proud rabbit owner, I was able to capture a wild rabbit. I placed the other rabbit with my domesticated rabbit hopeful the two rabbits would start a rabbit family. After several days of captivity, I found my captured rabbit dead. I did not realize at the time that I could not confine this animal in the way I wanted to—in the way that worked so nicely for my domesticated rabbit. Language, though it can be enjoyed and known from a distance, cannot, like other disciplines be confined in the same way.
Each language operates on a similar level. There is more to language than just a direct translation of words. It is more like the differences of colors. Someone who has never seen the color red could not have that color explained to them, any more than I could explain to a non Korean speaker what is different about speaking Korean than speaking English.
It comes as no surprise to anyone that our lives are lived at the level of our language. Our expression through language both explains and shapes our reality. As a result, the intricacies into the essence of how language works are essential to both the fundamental epistemic and metaphysical question of philosophy. Jose Antonio Vargas in his essay “My life as an undocumented Immigrant” shows that his mother wanted to “Give him a better life” and for this reason she wanted him to learn English. With language and identity language is often associated with a better life, of improving a person’s life if only they can become able to speak a language that can enable them access to a job and economy.
It is easy to realize that Frederick Douglass’s thesis holds very true to real life. He sees reading as writing as more than just a skill. No one speaks about learning to play golf or build a house as life changing. But when it came to learning to read and write Frederick Douglas speaks of it as if it were going to lead him to become a different person. When he learns to read he says, “behold! That very discontentment which which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul. (Douglas, 69). Like a language, learning to read is a permanent change in the structures of the brain that forever stays with a person.
Learning to read for Douglass was at first a very traumatic experience as it broke him out of the world of darkness he was living in. Despite his eagerness and joy to learn the skill, he found that at first it did not improve his life. His identity of a reader was in conflict with his identity as a slave. He says, “I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself” (Douglas, 69).
James Baldwin in his is “Then Tell Me, What Is?” makes an argument for the fact that “Black English,” or English spoken and grown in black communities should be considered a language. The question he argues has “nothing to do with language itself but thee role of language.” His essay makes the claim that language is the meaning that is passed from the speaker to the listener. If the listener understands what he means, then the language exchange has been successful.
I think this is similar to what Spanish immigrants experience when they have to decide between English and Spanish. Sometimes the English speakers make the Spanish speakers to feel bad for their language, but when they are telling them not to speak Spanish but to speak English instead what they are really doing is denying them to be as they are within.
In Vargas essay we see a strong shift from an old life to a new, with his mother sending him to another country because she wants him to create a better life for himself. Though he understood some English, he did not understand really what was being said to him. When he was being asked, “What’s up,” he replied, “The sky,” thinking that his was what was being asked of him. (Vargas, 219).
“My first challenge was the language” (Vargas, 220). I believe this is a normal first challenge for any person in a new country. Even though he knew English, he desired to lose his accent because this accent was part of his identity whether he liked it or not and by wanting to get rid of it he was really wanting to almost become an entirely different person.
This is similar to Amy Tan’s experience, who did not want to call her mother’s English “broken” since that is a bad meaning to associate it with. She more wanted to consider her language “different,” not “broken.”
My own experience relates most closely to Amy Tan’s Essay, “Mother Tongue”, whose native Chinese is not too different from Korean which has similar words. The situations of misunderstanding I can relate to directly, since often people will sometimes look at me funny not understanding when I say something because I have an accent often when I do. In her article she says that she has only recently become aware that she speaks “different languages I do use.” (Tan, 178). I understand her when she say that it is often the metaphors and the slang, or in her case the analogies on a test that are difficult to understand.
All in all, language is central to who we are as people. We are our language as much as our language is us. Being able to communicate effectively represents how well we can effectively blend into a community. More than that, language is a mirror through which how we hear ourselves, since how we express ourselves. It is how we are able to express ourselves to other that others see our identity. Our identity within, is found at the level of our language.
Douglas, Frederick. Learning to Read and Write
James Baldwin in his is “Then Tell Me, What Is?”
Amy Tan’s Essay “Mother Tongue”
Jose Antonio Varga. “My Life As an Undocumented Immigrant.”