Language: the perception of self, others and the creation of culture.

For those of us graciously and gratefully multilinguals, we know and understand that language as a whole is an algorithm of codes and that once those codes are understood and memorized, each of us is cognitively able to create unique and original linguistic formulas to vocalize our thoughts, emotions, sensations and stories.  Languages, in fact, resemble mathematics or music.

I have spent the past two years finalizing my research and studies on this very topic in Sicily and Italy.  This allowed me to create the theory that, both within and outside multicultural settings, language allows us to mold the perception of ourselves, others and the creation of culture.

Children acquire the linguistic codes they hear from their parents at home from birth on – many believe that this occurs even before birth as their Moms gestate and communicate with them.   For multilinguals, the parents’ native languages will be often spoken within a home, while the accepted language culturally outside the home will “sort” of become the official language of the child.

I question this, because – from personal experience – the language of love between my parents was Sicilian, until today they communicate with each other in Sicilian (though my Father was born in Sicily and my Mom in the USA – although she is Sicilian American) yet I was born in Italy where Italian was the “accepted” and “official” language, but Mom also spoke “English” and “French” at home to allow us to become fluent in those languages as well and cultivate them within our home environment.

Can we then say that Italian was my “native” language? Or Sicilian? Or English? Or French? Or a medley of all of them? Or can we argue that the Sicilian sounds my parents whispered to each other, the values, worldview, musicality, intonation and love transmitted to me is my native language? At my age, I have come to understand that Sicilian was undeniably the base of my upbringing, the original foundation of my mind map – but that all other languages {even the ones I learned during my high school and college years: Spanish, Portuguese, Latin and Ancient Greek} all equally had an impact on my cognitive spectrum and personal development.

Sicilian, as my base language even before birth, contributed to the molding of my “self” while the acquisition of other linguistic platforms allowed me to compare and contrast and create newer perceptions of both my “self” and “others.” Another very simple example here is that if I knew that the word “kiss” was “bacio” in Italian, I also knew that “vasuneddu” was its corresponding in Sicilian, “beso” in Spanish, “bisou” in French, “beijo” in Portuguese and so on – I knew there existed multiple ways or layers to express the same concept.  Again, I share my personal story to provide a clear example but there are so many other fascinating stories in this realm and I am certain you hold a beautiful one as well.

This can also refer to Sicily/Italy today as more and more immigrants from Northern Africa, Bangladesh, China, Poland/Eastern Europe and the Arab World move into our country and disseminate their native languages and contaminate the Italian language {for example “kebab” and “gyro” were almost unheard of in Italian but today more and more kebab/gyro shops can be found throughout Italy as well as international food shops with ingredients from these regions of the world and many others}.  Their children, born on Italian grounds, will hear and speak Italian to the outside world but they were born in homes where other languages were primarily spoken.

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Spice Market in Sicily {Photo by Giovanna Mignosa, 2017}

Language is a code not only with regards to its grammar rules and word order but it is also the reflection of an accepted series of cultural and behavioral norms and therefore a worldview accepted by that given culture – so, for example, in Sicilian we refer with sweetness to those we love and this changes depending on the degree of bonding and relationship – you may refer to a child as “ciatuzzu” {my small breath} or “joia mia” {my joy} but in Italian different terms are used {for example “tesoro = treasure,” or “amore = love”}.  This briefly demonstrates that even within the same geographical territory or “culture” what we believe to be stereotypical linguistic codes may actually vary based on the family’s upbringing and educational level, closeness, city, region, etc.

Dialects may not always be a slight variation of language {for example the use of “soda” and “pop” in the USA between North and South or East and West Coasts} but often they are independent languages all together – they are a unique combination of original codes very far from the “main” language {another example:  “donkey” in English, “asino” in Italian, “sciccareddu” or “sceccu” in Sicilian – you will notice that all three words are radically different from each other, Sicilian therefore is not modified Italian but all together a brand new language}.  Logically all of the above is the basis for the creation of unique “linguistic” cultures as well as more widely accepted international ones {think of the use of English in the business world}.

Language is much more than words, it is also a clear reflection of one’s cognitive skillset:  it allows us to vocalize our dreams, our life visions and wishes, to inspire, to be entertained, it is a sort of magical immaterial instrument with incredible power.  Spoken with kindness and positivity, it allows one to feel appreciated or otherwise depreciated, loved or not, motivated or not.  It goes beyond the uttered words because it involves the creation, elaboration and expansion of thoughts, spirit, feelings.  By diffusing these within the circle of our loved ones or any person we come into contact with, we create our own “culture” and, as that culture travels, we expand it to a larger dimension.

Shortness of language, on the other hand, is a reflection of lack of interest or knowledge or conciseness.  It can also demonstrate the personality or superficiality of a person, limited vs expansive vocabulary.  As it is also essential to know when to speak and when not to speak, when to say more or less, or nothing at all.  An immigrant for example who doesn’t speak the “new” language of his/her new country and will only respond with a short “yes” or “no” will do so for lack of knowledge and in the process of being unable to express himself/herself fully as he/she may in his native language, may feel total loss of confidence and demonstrate a total “personality change” because of this – but as they acquire more and more of the new language, they will regain confidence and more elaborate expressions.  For these very reasons, all of our contributions are unique, rich, original and fundamental to the creation of positive cultures.

Finally, our words can modify, deviate or improve any given complex situation when spoken kindly and diplomatically over time because they express repeatedly the very best of ourselves and our human nature.

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The above article is copyrights of Author Francesca Mignosa, 2017.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited.  For excerpts and links, kindly contact the author first.  

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