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How do Children Use Language to Construct and Express Their Identity?

Updated on February 7, 2013

Introduction

Language is found all around us in many forms. Spoken language as well as written and other forms of using language such as television, internet and phones have become a large part of everyday life. Language allows us not only to express ourselves but also helps us to construct our identities and how we see ourselves in the world.

Books are a vast and varied source of language.
Books are a vast and varied source of language. | Source

Young children's lives and beliefs are shaped by the language they find around them. Books, television, magazines and the internet, among other things introduce children to language in many forms including different styles, dialects, adaptations and even slang. These as well as what is spoken to and taught to the child teach them how to use language and will also become part of how they identify themselves and are categorized by others.

Just like adults children use language differently depending on the context. For example language use varies based on the circumstances or situation the child is in, who they are with or speaking too, how they want to appear to others or what they see as being acceptable in the given context. For example children may speak differently when alone with friends than they do when with parents or teachers. Reasons for this vary but could be due to the fact that grown ups may not know and understand some of the language they would use with friends, because the child has been taught or believes it to be inappropriate or even disrespectful to speak to adults using slang or non-standard language or because the child speaks more than one language.

Multilingual children may use a different language at home than while at school or with friends purely so that they are properly understood in each setting. It could be that their parents, grandparents or any younger siblings they have do not have the same opportunities for learning the main or only language used where they live and so still rely mostly or entirely on their mother tongue. But it may also be entirely or partly due to other factors. Multilingual children tend to use their different languages based on which language they associate with what they are talking about or associate with the relationships between them and the other speaker/s. Children may also be told they are only allowed to speak certain languages at school or even just in certain lessons at school.
There maybe generally regarded views of certain languages and it's status and appropriateness among a community. Speaking a certain language can be a source of pride for children and adults alike but can also cause them to have negative feelings about themselves or for others to see them in a certain way or assume what they may be like as people. This is true in America where speaking Ebonics (African American English) is often seen as being lower in status than speaking standard English and so people may form a negative or lesser view of Ebonics speakers and these children in turn may grow up feeling negatively about Ebonics being their mother tongue and so language and what is deemed as good or acceptable shapes their view of themselves and identity and may even lead to them making changes to this by trying hard to learn to speak in what is seen as a more acceptable way.

East African Children
East African Children | Source

There maybe generally regarded views of certain languages and it's status and appropriateness among a community. Speaking a certain language can be a source of pride for children and adults alike but can also cause them to have negative feelings about themselves or for others to see them in a certain way or assume what they may be like as people. This is true in America where speaking Ebonics (African American English) is often seen as being lower in status than speaking standard English and so people may form a negative or lesser view of Ebonics speakers and these children in turn may grow up feeling negatively about Ebonics being their mother tongue and so language and what is deemed as good or acceptable shapes their view of themselves and identity and may even lead to them making changes to this by trying hard to learn to speak in what is seen as a more acceptable way.

Children can sometimes feel that in learning a new language they need to also create a new 'them' showing how important language can be in how people view and identify themselves. In Africa great pride is taken in speaking African languages so it is not just language in itself that can help shape identity but also where that language is spoken and how it is viewed by the people around the speaker.
South Africa has eleven official languages. These include Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu, English and Afrikaans and most people are multilingual. In fact the majority of children in the world speak more than one language. Children use these languages often based on who they are with at the time and can switch between languages as needed, sometimes within the same conversation. Switching between languages within one conversation is known as code switching. Children and teenagers often use code switching based on what they are talking about. For example they may talking English generally while with friends but switch to their mother tongue to talk about family or something that happened to them earlier in life because that is the language they associate with the time, relationships and themselves then, showing another way in which children use language to connect aspects of their lives and as part of their identity even if it changes over time.

Teenage Girls Chatting
Teenage Girls Chatting | Source

Language and Friendships

Children and especially teenagers may learn new languages or variations to a language based on friendships or social groups they are part of. This can be met with mixed reactions. If it is another language they are learning then other people who's mother tongue it is may find it offensive or even suspicious that someone would want to learn what they see as 'their' language. The language is seen as part of their roots and cultural identity and therefore someone outside that culture speaking it maybe felt as an unwelcome intrusion, particularly when they may already be feeling cut off from their roots by living in another country. In racially mixed areas of South London, England some white teenagers who socialise with or have friends who are Afro-Caribbean have learnt to speak Caribbean based Creole or Patois. White teens may see this as an important part of the friendships and may feel it helps to make them feel more accepted by their Afro-Caribbean peers and also show that they accept them despite the racial differences and racism that maybe present from others.

Being able to speak another language maybe a source of pride for teenagers or make them part of groups and activities they wouldn't otherwise be able to join. They may also like the fact that it makes them stand out and gives them an identity outside the norm. Although some Afro-Caribbean teenagers are happy to accept this others feel that their white peers are invading what is theirs and trying to take over their identity or even 'be' black. This may even be regarded with suspicion as it may seem to be done with negative aims or intentions. It is understandable that anyone of Afro-Caribbean origin maybe upset, offended or suspicious of someone of another race taking on aspects of theirs especially as they may feel they do not have much of their culture for themselves as it is by living in predominantly white country. They may feel that they are being taken over more and more and that their culture is being made white and so they lose a connection to their roots and identity.

Source

Language and Identity

Language as a way of identifying a group of people is common, not only in that people of different races speak different languages but smaller groups within that may speak those languages differently, have different words for things or even different meanings for the same words as well as differences in pronunciation and grammar. This can be seen in England and English in the differences between common words used in the south and north and even on a smaller scale such as terms and phrase common to one county such as Yorkshire. In my own experience there were several differences to get used to when we moved from London to Lincolnshire. Not only did our accents stand out but there were some words that I and particularly my children used that were not understood or had another meaning and the reverse was true of words commonly used here in Lincolnshire. Even now, five years later people sometimes comment on my accent saying 'not from round here are you? or similar. They mean no harm and it doesn't bother me but I can understand how it could make someone feel like an 'outsider' and that they do not really belong and need to change who they are to be accepted.

Variations on language used to identify someone with a set group can work on an even smaller scale than variations based on geographical location. Sometimes certain social groups can have language or a style of communicating that is only found within their group or those of a similar nature. An example of this can be seen in American high schools between the Jocks and Burnouts. These are two very different social groups that teenagers place themselves or are placed in by others. Anyone who doesn't fit in to or chooses not to be part of either is know as an 'in between'

Jocks are enthusiastic about school and extra curricular activities. They dress reasonably smartly, often in designer clothes, play sports and hope to go to college. Language wise they are less likely to use slang and modified forms of English and speak using a range of pitch not seen within the Burnouts. Burnouts have less interest in school as a whole and are more likely to rebel against the oppression and corporate identity of school. They dress more casually In jeans, band t-shirts and sweatshirts and denim. Burnouts where more likely to swear and use non-standard grammar.

They also have adopted an exaggerated way of pronouncing some vowels which makes them stand out and be clearly identified as burnouts. Not only does language use and style vary between the groups but topics of conversations are different with burnouts being more likely to talk about parties they are attending, drugs and fights. Adopting the way of speaking common only to small groups like this helps children and teenagers be part of something, with people who are like themselves and therefore develop a sense of who they are and where they are going in life. Burnouts generally go on to work in local industry after they finish high school while Jocks carry on to college.

Modern technology has changed how language is used and also bought with it new use of existing words and terms of their own.
Modern technology has changed how language is used and also bought with it new use of existing words and terms of their own. | Source

New Technology and Language

Today's technology has created a whole new language as used in chat rooms and online forums, know as net-speak and the abbreviations and acronyms of text-talk used on mobile phones when sending short text messages to others. The originally low limit of characters allowed in a text message when sent from a mobile phone necessitated the development of a way to get across what you need to say in as few a characters as possible. Graphical 'smilie' where invented and are used to show emotion by creating a face using symbols such as brackets and hypens. Acronyms such as 'BRB' for be right back, plays on words such as 'cya' (see you) and shorten versions of words for example just typing 'U' to mean you or '2' for too are commonly used in text messaging to enable messages to be kept short and also be quick to type. Chat rooms and message forums online also use a very similar language again to enable quick and easy communication between users. It can also offer a degree of privacy particularly for teenagers simply because adults may not understand or be able to decipher what is being written. Here the written language of texting and the internet gives teenagers a group identity separate from the adult word and something that they can use together as a teenager and everything that comes with that so adding to their sense of identity.

Language is clearly an important part of who we are and how we and others see us. It helps to shape children's identities by making them feel and be part of certain groups or communities and therefore putting them in a position to adopt other common factors to those.

© 2012 Claire

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