Language and Culture
Language both reflects and reproduces culture. Think about the words you use and how you use them on a daily basis: you learned those words from people around you, but the very fact that those words exist is linked with culture. It’s telling when we have multiple words for a similar concept or very few to describe something.
In American English, we have a seemingly endless supply of superlatives that we use even in mundane circumstances: awesome, incredible, fantastic, amazing, and many others. What does this tell us about American culture?
Within the U.S., you might also hear other superlatives like killer, sick, sweet, phat, the bomb, or wicked (if you’re from Boston) that might not make sense to everyone. People might use these words selectively based on who they are speaking with at the moment. These words reflect the many subcultures that exist in the U.S., and how language links them and enables users to claim affiliation with these subcultures (or at least try to).
The issue of language can seem trivial until we think about how disrupting the transmission of a language also impacts culture. Sometimes this happens intentionally when a dominant group attempts to limit the use of the language of another group. For instance, during the late nineteenth century many American Indian children were sent to boarding schools as a result of federal policy that sought to anglicize them—and cut them off from learning their native language and culture. Some native languages are threatened with extinction for this reason. More recently, non-English speaking immigrants have faced backlash for continuing to speak their native language at home or at school.
While political debates have raged about language and immigration, there’s another group whose language—and subsequently culture—we often overlook: those that use American Sign Language to communicate.
People who are deaf experience a unique culture, in part because of the way they communicate. As the site deafculture.com explains, although there are significant differences from other subcultures (there is no separate mode of dress, religious worship, or foods as other subcultures may have), people who are deaf often attend schools with others who are deaf, might share recreational and leisure activities, and of course have a unique language.
Deaf people have rarely been portrayed in media, and when they have typically a character is immediately identified as an outsider, unable to communicate “normally” with others. By contrast, the ABC Family show Switched at Birth features several characters who are deaf and communicate using sign language. During the course of the show several of the hearing characters learn sign language to communicate better. Not just a show about deafness, this series is about grappling with a sense of identity—and culture—after the two main characters learn they were accidently switched at birth in the hospital.
The hearing daughter is learning to understand her newfound Latina heritage, while we see how the deaf daughter learns to adapt after she transfers to a school for hearing students. There are several characters on the show who are deaf, but they are fleshed out as full human beings struggling with everyday issues. The viewer learns how these characters navigate both the hearing and deaf worlds.
In the process, the audience gets an inside view into deaf culture, including some of the controversies surrounding cochlear implants (devices that may enable some to hear and learn to speak), and speech therapy.
From a hearing perspective, these debates might not make sense, particularly if deafness is viewed only as a disability. But understanding deafness as a culture helps us understand why some people are concerned about these issues. Just as people who speak languages other than English sometimes face pressure to give up their native tongue, many people who are deaf are concerned that cochlear implants will mean that hearing impaired children won’t learn to sign, potentially isolating them from both the hearing and deaf cultures.
For people unfamiliar with deaf culture, this might seem like an easy trade-off to be able to assimilate more easily with the dominant culture. But as there would be if one lost one’s ancestral language, there are cultural connections, customs, and cohesion that might be lost in the process.
Having difficulty hearing can be an isolating experience, particularly in social situations. Watching older relatives gradually lose their hearing, I have often observed them sitting quietly at a party or restaurant, disengaged from the conversation. If there is a lot of background noise, a hearing aid is often little help. For people who experience hearing loss throughout their lives, sign language provides a means of communication, and the larger deaf culture helps create a sense of belonging.
How else are language and culture connected?