lunes, 15 de diciembre de 2014

Language and Identity

This week´s entry is guest post written by one of our Spanish students, Ashley.  She is here in La Paz to do research for her phd and is keeping an insightful and interesting blog detailing her experience of doing fieldwork abroad while negotiating a new life in a new city .
Check out her blog here:

Language and Identity: Who is that voice?

Language and identity have been at the forefront of my mind not only since I arrived here in Bolivia, but since I started learning another language. I am speaking Spanish when I am at home and a mixture of English and Spanish when I am out. Negotiating my way between the languages and attempting to express myself in a way that feels like me, like who I am at home, is extremely complicated. My engagement with language and identity is very brief here, however it is something I will be exploring in greater detail throughout the course of my research. For now, it is a brief personal reflection.


My interest in identity in general has always meant that I frequently take a step back in order to consider my own identity and how it may be changing. I am currently reading Connecting Self to Society by Vanessa May, a book recommended to me by my good friend Jenny. Thanks Jenny! This book explores the idea of belonging, from the different possible definitions that exist and the to how people place themselves in society, with their surroundings, family, friends, strangers. It is an interesting read, for academics and non-academics alike.

Moving away from home and everything that is familiar is difficult for anyone, and it is inevitable that being removed from the familiar and situated in an unfamiliar world can affect your notion of belonging, and of who you are and what you do. Whilst this sounds negative, and in many ways when I feel homesick it certainly is, it also provides the space to re-evaluate yourself, your identity, your likes and dislikes, the things that you are comfortable with and the things you might not be so comfortable with. The first thing I felt uncomfortable with was language, and I soon realized that living in a language which is not my native one, was having an affect on me, my personality, how people relate to me, and in turn, my identity.

Speaking Spanish

Speaking another language has felt strange. I realized earlier on today whilst talking to my husband on Skype, that that was the first I had spoken English today. I had my breakfast this morning and my host sat down to ask all about my day yesterday (as I didn’t get back in until after 1am), and our conversations are always in Spanish. Eli and Pepe, my hosts, do not speak any English at all.

Whilst I am able to express myself and people understand me, there are subtle things missing that I feel make me who I am. These might be things that you say that are funny or silly, that add some character to your expressions and descriptions. Those things in English do not often translate well to Spanish and instead I find myself feeling a little frustrated that I can’t be funny, or make someone laugh (intentionally). The ability to do so may come with time, but it certainly affects the way that you think people might perceive you, which is central to your identity.

I have also found it difficult to switch between English and Spanish. I have made friends with people from Germany, Norway and Belgium, and when I am with them, we switch between English and Spanish. Getting used to switching between the two will take some time. I have also found that speaking Spanish has affected the way that I speak English. Instead of saying I am going to my friend’s house, I have said “I am going to the house of my friend” (in Spanish “voy ala casa de mi amiga”). My English feels simplified at times and I realise how strange I sometimes sound.

When I listen to myself speak Spanish, it feels strange, as if I am listening to another person. The tone and pitch of my voice is different and my expressions are likely to be different too. It doesn’t sound like me. Who is that person?

Language and Identity

Identity must be considered alongside language in relation to language use, choice and preference. Whilst I talk about identity here, I do not consider there to be just one identity. Identity is, of course, ‘constructed’. We often have multiple identities, and they are reshaped and restructured throughout our entire lives. Identities are continuously being negotiated and re-negotiated. As I negotiate my way through the Spanish language, stepping every now and then back in to English, I can feel a change in my identity, or at least the one I am most conscious of.

It can be suggested that our realities are reflected in our language and so I often wonder what reality is being reflected when I speak in a language that is not as familiar to me, and one in which I cannot always successfully express myself. There is no real answer here, but it is something that I have considered deeply at various points over the last two days, questioning who this voice is that is coming from me, but not able to say exactly what I want it to. I feel like a child, frustrated and anxious; trying to understand and be understood.

The value of speaking another language

Negotiating identities does not need to be negative, and in fact I have come to really appreciate that I am able to speak a language other than English. There are people I have spoken with that I would never have had the ability to before. Not knowing another language means that there are a ton of people out there in the world that you can’t communicate with; a massive myriad of personalities that you’ll never get to know; a wide range of life experiences that you’d never get to understand. Learning a language is not easy, and speaking that language more than your native one is also not easy, but I appreciate the time and effort I invested (and continue to invest) in learning Spanish.

Before I left Scotland, people told me I would change and that I would come back a different person. I’m not sure that is strictly true. I have always been reflective about my surroundings, my feelings of belonging and the influences on my identity, but I do know that I appreciate language more than I ever have.

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