“Language is the talisman that will enforce admiration or beget contempt; that will produce esteem or preclude friendship; that will bar the door or make portals flight open.”1
Language is more than just a means of communication or a tool of reflecting one’s thoughts.It is the very medium by which a human being attains an awareness of himself and his surroundings. Language shapes human perception of himself and the world he inhabits, because it serves as an instrument that carries all the data about one’s background, education, beliefs and prejudices. In fact, language has an important role in constructing our identities and directing our attitudes towards the others, which makes it central to our experience of being human. It has the power of both making us express ourselves and articulate our own individuality, and at the same time linking us together into small or large social groups. Language, therefore, is not something that the individual acquires at a certain point. It is a whole process in which the individual shapes himself, not only as a unique or an independent individual, but also as a member of a whole group, who is bound to not only interpret the world according to his personal worldviews, but also to perceive it in light of others’ ideas.
Knowing a language involves not only knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and phonology. In fact a speaker who knows a language, knows much more about that language than what it is found in grammar books. That is to say, understanding a language does not only imply that the speaker is aware of that language’s grammar rules, but it also implies that he is cognizant of how his linguistic behavior is conditioned by both social and cultural norms. In fact, if language learners are to communicate with other individuals from other cultural backgrounds, they will need not only to understand the cultural factors that influence the behavior of others, but also to identify the deep impact of their culture on their forms of linguistic expression. Indeed, language and culture are deeply interrelated, as we cannot understand the one without the knowledge of the other. Sapir and Whorf2 describe the language-culture relationship as a deterministic one: speakers of diverse languages would experience the world differently, because language has never been context-free. It has developed around a given socio-historical nexus. For that reason, difference in thought is generated by difference in language and that speakers of different languages will, automatically, have different worldviews. Hence,“By having another language, [one] has an alternative vision of the world.”3
Nevertheless, it is widely held that in multilingual contexts the fact that language and culture are closely intertwined leads to the creation of an atmosphere of tension among people, since every group of people has its own cultural norms for conversation and these norms can be completely different and conflict with other cultures’ norms. Besides, there is one language which is considered to be the official language and the language of the elites, while other languages are simply neglected or discriminated against. Multilingual people, therefore, are torn between many selves. Julia Kristeva reveals that speaking several languages constitutes a breach in one’s identity and prevents the polyglot from being truly at home in any language.
However, I adamantly believe that knowing multiple languages is a key factor in constructing a healthy identity. In fact, in multilingual societies, identities are not seen as fixed but rather as fluid, shifting, diversified and culturally constructed, which echoes the claim of Stuart Hall when he considered identity to be not just a fixed essence, for it is an ever-changing entity regulated by both cultural and societal norms. In this sense, identity is“not a pre-given entity”4.It is a matter of being, becoming, and coming into being. Being a multilingual person, therefore, provides us with the opportunity for self-reinvention. From this perspective, a new citizen model is born; a citizen of hope, a global citizen.
Global citizens strive to embrace cultural diversity through the development of an awareness of the different sociocultural and sociolinguistic norms that exist between people. These global citizens are aware of the importance of speaking multiple languages in fostering cultural understanding and, therefore, strengthening human bonds. As a matter offact, “Global citizenship is defined as awareness, caring and embracing cultural diversity while promoting social justice and sustainability, coupled with a sense of responsibility to act” 5. Indeed, the first philosopher in the West who expressed his cosmopolitan views was Diogenes of Sinope, when he was asked where he came from, he replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world’6. This does not mean that one should abandon his/her identity. On the contrary, this means that whatever people’s cultural differences are, they are all humans and they should all identify with being part of a world-wide community of people. In this respect, Abraham Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology, coined the term “self-transcendence”7, which implies that a person in a state of transcendence needs to be aware that his own needs should be put aside,and that he should embrace the cause of others. In this sense, a global citizen is someone who never categorizes or judges other people, who perceives the others regardless of their race, sex, or religion, and who is ready to help unconditionally. This conception is also reflected in the Enlightenment thought, where a strong sense of community, togetherness and communal relatedness are highly venerated. In fact, Thomas Paine once said that “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren and to do good is my religion.”8Indeed, Enlightenment philosophers pledged the ideals of liberty, progress, tolerance and fraternity. These philosophers had faith in human beings’ ability to solve their own problems by activating the universal qualities within them, actualizing their potential, and experiencing the reality of their innermost selves as unbounded, in order for them to express love, acceptance and compassion towards other humans.
My journey began when I was a first-year student at university. Back then, I had to sit for the orals’ final exam. I had to pick up a random number that corresponded to one of the topics we dealt with during the whole year. It happened that the topic I was supposed to speak about was “Child Labor”. I started reciting the causes, consequences and solutions to tackle this issue. I had a feeling that I convinced the jury, yet I did not convince myself, but I did not care anyway. Suddenly, one of the jury members asked me “Do you think you can make a difference?” I was about to answer him that I can’t make a difference because I am just a fish in a vast ocean, when an inner voice kept echoing in my ears urging me to consider that the thought that I cannot make a difference may not be true. I had this thought that maybe there is potential in all of us, maybe we do care, maybe we can make a difference. The idea that I should make a difference kept on resonating in my mind. For that reason, I had an interest in delving deeper into the world of academic research, for I thought it to be the only medium by which I can have an impact on peoples’ lives. I remember my first step towards reaching my goal was when I dedicated all my time and energy to learn more about other languages, cultures and backgrounds. My love for linguistics grew more with the passing of time, as I registered in the Linguistics Stack Exchange forum, where I started to interact virtually with students from diverse cultural backgrounds drawn from all over the world, which helped me to experience as many languages and linguistics spheres as possible and which created the perfect atmosphere for me to nurture my passion. I, then, came to the realization that language and especially multilingualism are of primordial importance for us to know about the different cultures, to embrace these differences and at the same time come to accept these very differences as an element of diversity, richness and positive input.
As I continued exploring the world of linguistics, I realized that multilingualism is a powerful tool in facilitating cultural awareness and reducing racial tensions. In fact, racism, that is the belief that one race is superior to the other has nowadays changed into a cultural racism focusing on cultural differences which are mainly linguistic in nature. Linguistic racism is deep rooted in history, as many languages have been looked down upon, abused and even banned. For instance, the dominance of the Islamic culture and the hinge of the Arabic language over the other languages in Tunisia led people to consider linguistic diversity as a danger to national unity and a provocation to division. Berbers, who are the indigenous inhabitants of the North-African region, have become ignored and marginalized in the name of Pan-Arabism. The question of Amazigh Language was raised after the Tunisian revolution. A revolution that laid the basis for a sustainable civic engagement, which led to the proliferation of multiple associations calling for building up a culture of democracy and pluralism. During that period, I voiced the idea that racism can be diminished through helping people gain multicultural and linguistic awareness, through participating in Amnesty International which is a global movement of millions of people who campaign to end abuses of human rights. I also had the chance to be a board member of the Anti-Corruption International, which helped me develop a sense of integrity and belonging towards every human being regardless of their cultural backgrounds or linguistic choices.
We are all citizens of this earth because borders are meaningless. People don’t need to actually travel outside their own country to be Global Citizens; they can do it simply by having a human conscience, and perceive the world from a global perspective. Possessing a passport, traveling to other countries and learning about other cultures, norms and traditions is of a great importance to raise awareness among people, but this plays only a small role in global citizenship. A global citizen should respect differences, accept others, and pay genuine attention to global issues as well as to try his best to solve them. A true global citizen, therefore, possesses an all-encompassing view of himself and the world he lives in. The awareness of the world begins with self-awareness, an awareness that enables human beings to identify with the universalities of the human experience. Humanity first, before anything else. This is the priority for people around the world, and this is the goal and importance of being a Global Citizen.
“Not the maker of plans and promises, but rather the one who offers faithful service in small matters. This is the person who is most likely to achieve what is good and lasting”9
During my journey towards being a global citizenship, I realized that being happy depends on making a conscious effort to identify with other human beings through acts of empathy and compassion. I also realized that my eyes have been opened to the fact that knowing different languages is of a great importance in order to obtain more opportunities for understanding and coexisting with other people, whose cultures and worldviews are different than ours. Multilingualism is a powerful tool to lift the veil that keeps us from more clearly seeing the world as a whole and finding more sustainable ways of connecting with those who share our common humanity.
1*W.H Sacage,“The Vulgarisms and Improprieties of the English Language: Containing Also Grammatical Errors, Orthoepical Readings, Tautological Phrases, Aspiration of H Together with a Critical Preface on Stage Pronunciation”T. S. Porter, 108, Britannia Street, City Road, 1833
3*Conceptual representation in bilinguals: the role of language specificity and conceptual change
Athanasopoulos, P. 2015 In:The Cambridge handbook of bilingual processing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press p. 275-292. 18 p. ISBN: 9781107060586. Electronic ISBN: 9781107447257.
4*Chen, Kuan-Hsing. "The Formation of a Diasporic Intellectual: An interview with Stuart Hall," collected in David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (eds),Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, New York: Routledge, 1996.
6*Diogenes Laertius,"The Lives of Eminent Philosophers",Book VI, Chapter 2, line 63
7*Cfr. A.H. Maslow, "The farther reaches of human nature", in:Journal of Transpersonal Psychology1(1969)1, pp. 1-9; A. Maslow,The farther reaches of human nature(New York: The Viking Press, 1971); Mark E. Koltko-Rivera, "Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification", in:Review of General Psychology10(2006)4, pp. 302-317(PDF); Albert Garcia-Romeu, "Self-transcendence as a measurable transpersonal construct", in:Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 42(2010)1, p. 26-47(PDF)
8*Davidson, Edward H. and William J. Scheick. Paine, Scripture, and Authority: The Age of Reason as Religious and Political Idea.Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-934223-29-7.
9*"Classical Weimar UNESCO Justification".Justification for UNESCO Heritage Cites. UNESCO. Retrieved7 June2012.