When Language and Culture Encounter

My language is intertwined with my culture. I have had the good fortune of visiting and living among various communities of this world. I was born and raised in Bangladesh, but I have visited USA three times and there have been short visits to India and Thailand. Each community was very diverse and different from each other. All my experiences collectively made me realize that language is an intrinsic part of culture. What we think and express in words are inevitably dictated by the cultural norms imprinted in our subconscious. However, different contexts have different requirements of communication, and one’s culture will most definitely manifest in their words even while attempting to meet specific contextual requirements of communication. Through all of languages verbal and non-verbal aspects, language embodies cultural identity, and will clash with the requirements of community different from my own. As a student of Linguistics, I will relate the story of how my current speaking style was formed through the accumulation of experiences in different communities.
Narrative style is different for people hailing from different regions. Since I was raised in Mymensingh, a district of Bangladesh with a distinct dialect, naturally the way I speak in Bangla, reflects the way people of my home district speak. As Bangladeshis we try to insert a lot of emotions in each of our remarks, be it for invoking sympathy, rage or laughter upon others.
However, since I am from Mymensingh, my way of speaking Bangla is distinct, in the sense that we use sarcasm in ample amounts accompanied with laughter to always keep the mood light. When I was exposed to University teachers and other Bangladeshi people in Dhaka, naturally my style of speaking was not welcome in every quarter. I observed that the ‘Dhakaites’ do not prefer a light mood in all instances. They are quick to temper and most of my sarcasm is lost in their insecurity of being made fun of. Instead of invoking laughter through my sarcasm I sometimes invoked undue anger. This shows that communities belonging to different geographical locations may have different ways of interpreting communications.
While people of my home district finds the humor in every situation with exaggeration, people of Dhaka tries to interpret each word on the merit of its main meaning, without any allowance for sarcasm. Naturally I had to adapt to the speaking style of Dhaka, which is giving short direct sentences to express one’s intent, and clarifying each and every metaphor or analogies that are inadvertently used. This also shows the print and power aspect of Dhakaites language, since their dialect is most common; it is naturally the most used dialect even by the people who immigrated to Dhaka from different districts.
Words that had a certain meaning before are now frequently used as a symbol for specific things. Certain words had different meaning for me before I went on an exchange program in USA, and now when I use them they are automatically used to refer to certain symbolic meaning. For example, the word bridge just meant a connecting road between two land masses or platforms, before I traveled to USA. When I went to the YES Program, the word bridge is frequently used as a connection between people and their culture, like the sentence, ‘We need to build a bridge of understanding and tolerance between Muslims and Americans.’ Before USA ‘terrorist’ meant any group that creates terror to further their political agenda. After my experience in US, from the wide usage I observed among the Americans, I now understand that it specifically refers to extremist Muslims who have a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
Similarly, holocaust just does not mean extreme abuse and torture inflicted upon a group of innocent people without any real reason, but it refers to ‘the holocaust’ upon the Jewish people during World War II. These are also examples of cultural encoding and linguistic signs. The words ‘bridge’, ‘holocaust’ and ‘terrorist’ are linguistic signs. The different meanings denoted by these words are examples of cultural encoding. A clearer example of cultural encoding is the different English speakers refer to toilets. In Bangladesh we call the restroom as ‘bathroom’ and the commode is called latrine. In America the commode is called toilet seat.
What surprised me the most when I look back at how my current speaking style has changed due to outside influences, is the social construction of literacy that people conduct based on what they heard. For example, due to my distinct Mymensingh dialect, people of Dhaka automatically used to assume that I am uneducated. This is different from when people of United States assumed that I must speak broken English, simply from the fact that I hail from a third world country. This is because Americans judged that my communication skills were primitive as I hail from a primitive background, according to their perception. For them English being spoken the way they do is more civilized.
However, the presumptions about my literacy by the Dhakaites, that I had to suffer were because, they judged me on the way I spoke Bangla. With the Americans, they judged me before they heard me. I was also socially positioned as someone belonging to the uneducated class based on the way I spoke Bangla.
I have changed my style of speaking by incorporating all the different reactions I received for my past usage of both English and Bangla, and the style I have now is not perfect but is flexible enough to adapt new changes. Now I speak both Bangla and English, keeping in mind the dialect that majority would understand. I am less sarcastic and ‘cool’ in my responses now, to retain seriousness.
As per the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis the structure of my speech reflects the way I perceive society and accounts for all my experiences and worldviews. My speech pattern will continue to change as more time passes.

 

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