This is this issue of the Climax's "Postcard from Abroad," Eric asked me to write it, so I did:
Language and culture are so intertwined that oftentimes we have trouble distinguishing if culture begets language or vice versa. One classic example is of the French habit of posing questions in the negative: instead of asking, “Do you want this sandwich?” a Frenchman, or woman, will say, “You don’t want this sandwich?” This, in the French culture, allows one to say, “No,” without being rude. Another example in the French language is the use of the neutral pronoun “on” or “one.” This neutral pronoun allows one to displace blame, “I’m sorry that you had to wait in line so long, but one has to carefully go over all the paperwork,” not “I” not “we” or “he” or “she” but “one.” While I could explore the historical and societal reasons for the need to be able to say, “No,” without being rude or to displace blame in France, I will save it for another essay. Instead, I want to write about the impact that language has on an individual’s personal cultural identity. In this case because this is a “postcard from abroad,” I’m going to write about how my language affects my personal cultural identity during my experiences on Hampshire’s direct exchange with Sciences Po in Paris, France.
For the majority of people, their country of origin is reflected by their mother tongue. An individual from Hungary will most likely use Hungarian as their principle language. A few exceptions to this rule are people descended from immigrants and people who grow up in certain regions of certain countries (an example would be a friend of mine from Alto Adige, a German-speaking part of Italy). I was born in the United States, but the first language I learned was Italian. This does not mean that I am more comfortable in Italian than I am in English as I did the majority of my schooling in the States, and my dad only speaks English. I am, however, an Italian citizen as well as an American citizen and have actually only ever voted in Italian elections. Most of the time, I can pass under the radar as an Italian-American, so it rarely becomes a public issue. Lately, my ability to pass under the radar unchallenged has begun to change.
It started with an innocent question on the first day of Sciences Po’s Welcome Program for foreigners: “Where are you from?” I had to make a quick decision, so I said, “I’m Italian and American.” I was the only one in the class to say something less cut and dry than China or Germany. As the Welcome Program progressed, and as my classmates and I became better friends, things only got more complicated. In the States, I rarely have a problem with English, but when I live abroad for extended periods of time, my Northwestern American accent becomes a hybrid of whatever accents are around me, and my vocabulary begins to disappear. The same happens with my Italian. In the amazing international setting of Sciences Po (where 44% of students this year are international), the language part of my brain becomes completely fried. One night, I met an Italian who was speaking Spanish to some people from Mexico. That night, I was switching between Spanish, Italian, English, French, and the miniscule amount of German I know. I began speaking Italian to the Hungarians, French to the Germans, Spanish to the Italians, and any other combination of languages and nationalities imaginable.
When I get confused with my languages and accents, most people just gently correct me, tease me, and then tell me that it’s understandable. My class from the Welcome Program has really gelled into a cohesive group. We’re friends now, not just classmates. So they have no qualms about calling me on my language faults, in any language. The latest occurrence was at our last reunion dinner. When I get tired, my accent in English really falls apart, and I haven’t been in the States since June. We have an Irishman in our class, and the majority of people in the class speak English with a British accent. This combination of factors resulted in me speaking British/Canadian/American/Irish English. Someone looked at me and asked, “Where are you from?” I could only respond that I didn’t know. I self-identify as Italian and American, and when people are really interested, I go into an explanation of why and how I actually feel more European and American than anything else, but that doesn’t mean that people perceive me as Italian and American, or solely one or the other.
Language swiftly becomes a definition of who someone is. An accent can tell society about which country or part of the country you come from, which social class you belong to or educational background you have, or what other languages you speak, among other things. Our world today, however, is changing faster than our accents. The perceptions people have based on how or which languages one speaks are becoming more and more skewed. Unfortunately, though these perceptions may be wrong, they still have a huge impact on how one is viewed in a group or in society, how one is expected to act, and indeed, who people believe one is.
Paris is an island in France made of a myriad of different cultures and nationalities. These people often live side by side; a street can separate a “bad” neighborhood from a “good” one. In such a cosmopolitan environment, people cannot help but recognize difference, whether it is represented by an accent, a style of dress, or the color of someone’s skin. What is important in such a place is how people react to differences. Reactions have caused the banlieue riots, the banning of headscarves in the public sphere, and Science Po’s addition of a special, separate entrance exam based on the zip code of applicants. Reactions have sparked debates on the universalism of humanity versus the individual and group concepts of culture, on who is French and who is foreign. There is no way to see the future of Paris, France, or the world, but people are beginning to look around themselves and change how they react, and that is the first step to creating any sense of a global community.