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Language and Identity


Submitted By wilmie
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Ngugi (1986) argues that the dominance of English takes us “further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our worlds to other worlds”. Drawing from this readings, argue for or against this statement.

Ngugi (1986) argues that language and identity are inseparable, and that a global language robs people of their identities. I however believe that language does in a way guide how we perceive the world but it in no means defines who we are. Identity as explained by Gervais-Lambony (2006) develops over time and is shaped from our social experiences. Identity is not fixed and can change over time to how we want people to perceive us. In this discussion I shall argue against Ngugi’s statement by drawing from readings that opposes what Ngugi says.
Ngugi (1986) feels that English was forced upon him and that his home language and his culture were taken away. For Ngugi identity, culture and language are closely linked. Therefore he feels that if one’s language is taken away so is your identity. An author that agrees with his statements is Appiah (1999) who has a strong traditional sense of what it means to be an African. Appiah uses the word tribe when he speaks of identity ( Appiah 1999: 42 ) “ a tribe is thought of as a group of people who are descended from common ancestors and ruled by a chief , who share a single culture including language and religion”. Ngugi and Appiah do not believe that there is any choice in identity, they believe that identity is fixed. On the contrary Kamwangamalu (2004) argues that one can choose your identity depending on what you want to achieve. I agree with Kamwangamalu that identity is dynamic and that us as individuals can choose how we want to be portrayed.
Makubalo’s (2007) research on the four high school learners shows that identities are multiple and constantly changing. The four learners that he interviewed know how to differentiate between English and their mother languages and can easily switch between English and their home language. One of the learners Sello (2007: 34) feels that “for him English is merely a pragmatic tool that facilitates communication in a multilingual environment”. Makubalo (2007) research proofs that these learners are aware of the importance of English for personal advancement and academic purposes but that they also understand the importance of their home language and knows how to balance between the two.
I believe that people have multiple identities and that you can change your identity according to the environment that you are in and your community around you. When I am at home I am not the same person as when at school or around my friends I act differently and speak differently. For this reason I believe that identity is not fixed but changing and that there are multiple identities within one’s identity.
Language and identity for me are linked to one another but they are still two separate things. The first language one learns will always be the one who first shaped your views of the world around you, but I feel that in learning multiple languages you have a broader view of the world and people. In this essay I have argued against Ngugi by referring to authors such as Kamwanamalu( 2004) who believes that identity is dynamic and that people can choose their own identities. Therefore I do not agree that the dominance of English takes your identity away from you, I feel that it rather enriches your sense of self.

Appiah, K.A 1999, Ethnicity and Identity in Africa: an interpretation. In K.A . Appiah & H.L. Gates . Africana : The Encyclopedia of the African and African American experience, Persues Book group, p. 703.
Gervais-Lambony, P (2006). Space and Identity: thinking through examples. In Bekker, S and Leidie, A. (Eds). Reflection on Identity in four African Cities. African Minds. P.53-67.
Kamwangamalu, N.M.(2004). “ Language , social history , and identity in post- apartheid South Africa : a case study of the “Colored” community of Wentworth ”. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 170:113-129.
Makubalo G.( 2007). “ I don’t know it contradicts” : identity construction and the use of English by high school learners in a desegregated school space. English academy Review 24.2.2007.
Ngugi wa Thiongo (1986) “ the language of African literature ” in Decolonishing the Mind: The Politics of language in African Literature . Heineman publishers.

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