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Hashing out my Linguistic Identity

Written By: reinaveja on November 4, 2009 1 Comment

One reason I’ve decided to research language use and identity for my dissertation is because I find that my own identity is constantly in question, both by myself and by others. As an American living in the United States, my linguistic identity should be simple. I should only speak one language, English, and be indifferent towards the other languages of the world. Perhaps growing up in Texas would complicate the identity that others create for me. They might assume that I know some Spanish. Hola. Adios. Gracias. Yo quiero Taco Bell. However, no one actually speaks Spanish unless they have familial ties to a Spanish speaking country. When people learn I speak five languages fairly fluently, they fail to conceal their incredulity. My international friends (all of them are at least bilingual but most speak more than two languages) flat out say I’m not American. “American” has become synonymous with “monolingual”. Others have no problems stripping me of my American identity because I contradict the image they have of Americans. In all fairness, I was happy not to be labeled as American, especially from 2000-2008. I was more creative than most Americans abroad, opting out of the “I’m Canadian” lie and telling people I was Brazilian instead. At the moment, Americans, with our new president, have some clout and for the time being, I can admit to my true origins. Being in Africa has given me added incentive to highlight my Americanness. The word “America” has been replaced by the word “Obama” or “Obamaland”. Yes, I’ve heard numerous times “Oh, you come from Obama.” While traveling in Malawi, an armed guard at a road block boarded my minibus and asked to see the passports of my Australian companions and me. When he returned mine, he asked, “How’s Obama?” Taken by surprise, all I could say was “Go Obama!” Saying anything else might’ve landed me a fine.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, my identity while traveling in Africa is in constant flux, heavily influencing my linguistic practices and constantly jarring my sense of self. In Kenya, I was a Muzungo, unclear if that appellation simply meant foreigner or if it meant white person. Someone explained to me that in Swahili, “zungo” means to wander while the m- prefix is to denote a person. Thus, a Muzungo is a person that wanders, referring to the first European explorers in East Africa. The application of the word changes from person to person but you get the sense that if you are called a Muzungo, one is trying to highlight the fact that you don’t belong. Persistently being called a Muzungo was new territory for me. In Senegal, Toubab is the word used for foreigners. It means “doctor” in Wolof but as with Muzungo, its original definition has been amplified. I was never called Toubab and as such, saw it more as a racial distinction. Most Senegalese thought I was Peul, from a tribe in northern Senegal who has lighter skin than the majority of Senegalese. Only after speaking, did I betray my origins, but I still felt a sense of belonging that my white classmates in the study abroad program did not enjoy.

However, my changing identity was best displayed when traveling between Kenya and Tanzania, with these countries’ conceptualizations of language playing a role in molding my linguistic practices. In Kenya, I assumed that because I was labeled as a foreigner, I was spoken to in English. However, the picture is much more complicated than that when comparing Kenya to Tanzania. While these two countries are similar linguistically with English and Swahili as official languages and several local languages being recognized as well, their approaches to the official languages vary greatly. In Kenya, English is the language of instruction with Swahili being taught as a language course. Most students speak their local language at home, learn to read and write in Swahili through one or two classes a day, and receive all other materials in English. In turn, many Kenyans are quite proficient in English and Kenya is slowly being seen as a next great outsourcing destination. Tanzania, in contrast, places much more value on Swahili and considers their version more correct than the Kenyan’s use of Swahili (being very generous in their opinions of Kenyan Swahili). The language of instruction, at least in public schools, is Swahili with English being taught as a language course. Most of the young people I met did not speak a local language even though there are over 100 different languages spoken in Tanzania. This lack of local language is partly due to how Tanzania was formed at Independence. Its first leader, Julius Nyerere, heavily emphasized the need for a unified Tanzania (especially after its annexation of Zanzibar) and implored its citizens to see themselves as Tanzanian above any tribal affiliation. This desire for a national identity lead to placing importance on learning Swahili and being able to use it in all domains. While this policy might be detrimental to the other languages as well as to a strong command of English, it has meant that Tanzania has not experienced the tribal conflict that reared its ugly head in Kenya’s 2007 presidential elections.

As for what all this means for me, in Kenya, people spoke to me in English both because of their greater command of English and because my physical appearance did not place me in any of the ethnic groups found within Kenya’s borders. Kenyans use facial features, skin color, style of dress, and accent to tell to which group someone belongs. I did not fit into any of these templates and was thus registered as a foreigner. In Tanzania, where ethnic boundaries are much more fluid and stake less of a claim on the national psyche, I could easily look like a Tanzanian. My skin color fit within the national range, my facial features called attention to myself but with the Arab influence abound in Tanzania I did not look too out of place. When I chose to wear kangas (cloth wrapped around as a skirt) I could move among the population undetected. This ability to blend in, in turn, influenced my linguistic experience.

In Kenya, as a foreigner, it was hard to learn Swahili. I never got the chance to practice because I was almost automatically addressed in English. In Tanzania, because everyone assumed I was Tanzanian and couldn’t get over the fact that I was actually American, they were much more adamant on making me speak in Swahili. This pressure forced me to pick up Swahili more quickly, giving me the necessary practice to improve. My experiences in these two countries have compelled me to reevaluate the angle I want to take when conducting my dissertation research on Senegalese immigrants in France and Italy, and I look forward to applying what I’ve learned during my experience here to my future research.

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One Response to “Hashing out my Linguistic Identity”

  1. Youki on: 6 November 2009 at 4:58 pm

    great post! here’s a link to Maya’s previous post:

    yeah it’s great visiting Japan, people get such strange looks on their faces when I speak English with an American accent (I look Japanese but I’ve lived my entire life in America). Even stranger looks when they realize I barely understand what they’re saying in Japanese.

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