The Fellowship of Language and Culture

My native language is a dialect of Croatia known as Sansegoto, spoken in Sansego, but I never learned to speak it. There once were almost three thousand people on that island; today, there are less than three hundred. A famine following World War II and the war itself forced them to leave. My mother escaped from the island with her children and crippled husband, carrying me in her arms. I was thirteen months old, and the first language I learned to speak was Italian. However, I exist in a culture of three languages.

I have been exposed to it in my formative years through my mother’s circle of family and friends. I picked up a few words here and there and many bleep words. However, I learned their culture not through the vocabulary of the language but through every nuance of the dialect, every inflection in the sound, the modulation of the speech, the gasp, the snicker, and the laughter in the voice. They are as different from Italian or English as is the culture associated with each vernacular.

Language and culture are organic and intertwined. Lectures, books, and videos will teach vocabulary and stringing together words to form a sentence. But the learner has not learned the language unless she also immerses herself in the culture, for Development of a culture cannot occur without communication, and communication cannot develop without language. For this reason, once the student has acquired a basic vocabulary, the teacher will immerse her into the relevant folklore and literature that has influenced morality, lifestyles, and manners of the country.

“More than 650 new words, senses, and subentries have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary in its latest update, October 2019, including fake news, xoxo, Jedi, and mind trick. More than 1,400 new words, senses, and subentries have been added in the quarter ending June 2019, including bae, yeesh, and hasbian.” In January 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) announced that it has added more than 1,100 words, senses, and sub-entries. Culture has changed and so has language. Dictionaries in other tongues will have their own lexicon metamorphosis according to the time and culture of their countries.

Language and culture are intertwined

My primary language is Italian at the basic conversational level. That’s as far as I got in my Italian school, enough to function and carry on a conversation, but not good enough to read Umberto Eco. To do that, I must rely on translation. I had lived in Italy, had my little friends, played girlish games with them, and learned family values. Too young to have acquired cognitive language, I understood the culture and where I fit. Eight years later I was uprooted to America and my Italian vocabulary dwindled in the process of acquiring English while I added American culture to my background without subtracting the others.

It is what happens to every immigrant that, in the process of gaining cognitive proficiency in a new language, the primary language becomes secondary. It is within this backdrop that I stutter when people ask me, Where are you from?

I am neither from here nor from there. I am from all the places that have touched me. To say that I am Italian would deny my cultural exposure with everything American and with my deeper core of Croatian culture. It is a matter of personal identity defined by exposure to languages and cultures that reached me through home environment, education, and travel.