Mother Language: Cultural Identity and Intellectual Development

Mother Language: Cultural Identity and Intellectual Development

Performing Artist, academic, and community advocate Ras Judah Seomeng migrated here, along with his family, from Botswana, Africa over 18 years ago looking for greener pastures. Currently at the beginning of his PHD candidature at the University of Auckland, he works for Change Makers Resettlement Forum – A Wellington-based, not-for-profit organisation that supports refugee migrants with resettlement processes, assisting them with the challenges they experience in Aotearoa New Zealand, helping them navigate a new culture and reality. Here, Seomeng speaks about Mother Languages Day 2023 and discusses the effects of living in places where the commonly spoken language isn’t your own mother tongue or first language.

Head and shoulders image of a man with black dreadlocks. He is wearing a suit and tie and smiling at the camera.
Judah Seomeng. Photo courtesy of the author

Language facilitates comprehension of one’s environment, learning concepts, and achieving multiple skills. Language is integral to exploring and sustaining personal growth and an essential aspect of cultural identity and intercultural understanding. Language is also tightly linked to cognitive development from early on in childhood, a process by which knowledge and meaning are constructed, a vessel through which we share our thoughts, emotions, and ideas, and an empowering tool for individuals and the cultural group.

Historically, from ancient kingdoms to today’s multicultural and multilingual societies, traditional knowledge and culture have been and continue to be transmitted and preserved through language. Mother language (the language that one acquires at birth), also known as a first language (L1) or native language, has been identified by researchers as essential for learning as part of cognitive ability.

Significance of mother language in self-expression and cultural identity

I am neither a linguist nor a communication expert, but as a cultural anthropologist, I have always been fascinated by the intrinsic connection between culture and language.

Culture, as an overarching anthropological concept, includes language, symbols, artefacts, norms, and values. But effective social interaction (including intercultural communication) and how people learn, understand, and express culture is made possible by language, thus, making language the most critical determinant of culture.

Franz Boas (1858–1942), German American anthropologist and one of the pioneers of modern anthropology, has argued that the ease with which our most intimate ideas are articulated and expressed can be best achieved through our mother tongue. Indeed, conceptualizing a logical thought in a second or adopted language can be challenging for most people.

As a migrant for whom English is a second language, I have first-hand experience with this language challenge. After nearly two decades of English language immersion, I often struggle to find English words for things, situations, and social phenomena.

As a social and cultural studies student who has also interacted and worked with people from diverse cultural backgrounds, I have witnessed and grown to appreciate the interconnectedness between language and culture. So far, I have observed that nearly every ethnic person I have come into contact with has a native/mother language word, name, or expression for most things that matter to their culture.

My previous research with migrant families who speak English as a second language has also shown that maintaining family-unit cohesion partly depends on intergenerational mother-language proficiency.

One of the common themes in the research (which investigated African migrants’ experiences of sociocultural integration here in Wellington, was the occurrence of inter-generational cultural dissonance within family units. Intergenerational dissonance is a clash between two generations (usually between parents and their children) over cultural values.

The research analysis found the primary cause of this clash to be the language barrier between the two generations. Many migrant families who arrive in the country with limited English language proficiency would take English language classes. However, youngsters typically acquire the English language relatively faster than adults, primarily through formal schooling, while adults often take much longer.

Younger people also lose their mother language rapidly as they spend more time away from their elders, speaking the new language with friends and peers. This rapid loss happens through two related processes; loss of original cultural norms (acculturation process) and adoption of the new culture (enculturation process).

The research found that once the children lose their mother language, they eventually lose grasp of some of the symbolic cultural meanings usually articulated and expressed through their mother language – aspects of culture not readily explainable in a second language. For some elders, limited English language proficiency becomes a barrier to comprehending their children’s experiences of the new sociocultural environment. The (language) communication breakdown leads to intergenerational cultural dissonance and conflict.

Mother language and intellectual development

In today’s contemporary multicultural and multilingual societies, such as Aotearoa New Zealand, where there is essentially one common language, I am reminded of a critical question posed by Franz Boas back in 1940: “How far does language influence the line of thought, and how far does it help or hinder the development of culture?”

Although I fully appreciate and support adopting a common language as central to inter-ethnic cooperation in today’s multi-ethnic societies. I firmly believe in promoting the mother language as a mediator and signifier of true cultural diversity and a medium through which people can truly express and articulate their most intimate ideas.

Research has shown that fluency in the mother tongue is a strong foundation for cognitive and linguistic skills for learning an additional language. Children who develop their intellectual abilities in a bi-lingual environment have gained a deeper understanding and effective use of language.

On the other hand, children who are encouraged to reject their mother tongue have been found to have compromised personal and conceptual learning foundations. Furthermore, researchers have found that fluency in the mother language can positively influence children’s mental, moral, and emotional development.

International mother language day

International Mother Language Day. Poster resource courtesy of UNESCO

During the partitioning of India in 1947, the Bengal province was divided according to the two prominent religions at the time, with eastern Bengal (later East Pakistan and now Bangladesh) being Muslim-majority and west Bengal (today the state of India) being Hindu-majority.

In 1948 the government of Pakistan declared Urdu as the sole national language, which sparked protests among the Bengali-speaking majority. Despite the government’s move to outlaw the demonstrations, on 21 February 1952, students at Dhaka university and other activists organized a protest. Later that day, police opened fire at the demonstrators, killing four students.

Many more people died during this period as Bengali speakers campaigned for the right to use their mother language until Bengali was eventually recognized as one of the national languages of Pakistan in 1956. In 1971 Bangladesh became an independent country with Bengali as its official language.

On the initiation of Bangladesh, UNESCO declared 21 February to be International Mother Language Day (IMLD) in November 1999, and it was first observed globally on 21 February 2000.

On 16 May 2007, the UN General Assembly declared the following year (2008) as “The International year of Languages” to promote unity, diversity, and international understanding through language and culture. Also, on 16 May 2009, the UN called on all its Member States to encourage the preservation and protection of all languages used by the peoples of the world.

Each year, UNESCO chooses a theme for International Mother Language Day. The IMLD theme for 2022 was “Using Technology for multilingual learning: challenges and opportunities”, and the theme for 2023 is Multilingual education – a necessity to transform education.

About Judah Seomeng

My name is Judah Seomeng. I spent most of my life as a performing artist, so most people who know me would know me as a musician. However, I am also an academic and a passionate community advocate. I did my undergraduate degree in Arts and Media back in Botswana during the early 1990s. In 2004, I migrated to New Zealand with my family in search of greener pastures. Our first New Zealand home was in Nelson, where we spent eight years before relocating to Wellington in 2013.

A man is sitting at a microphone playing a guitar and singing into the mic. He is wearing glasses and has his dreadlocks tied back. There is a purple light behind him on the stage.
Judah Seomeng performing in 2022. Photo courtesy of the author

Once in Wellington, I enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts (Honours) program at Victoria University majoring in cultural anthropology. Inspired by personal experiences as an immigrant, my topic of interest is human migration, particularly the social and cultural integration of new migrants in host societies.

Later in 2019, I enrolled in a master’s degree program, from which I graduated in 2020. Working with one of the East African communities in Wellington, my MA research sought to understand how members of this (primarily refugee background) community experienced adaptation and integration into Aotearoa New Zealand’s life.

Presently, I am in the early stages of my PhD candidature at Auckland University’s School of Health and Medical Sciences. My current research work seeks to understand the effects of “racism and prejudice” on population health, with a specific focus on ethnic minorities’ inter-group relationships in Aotearoa New Zealand. In addition to studying, I also work for Change Makers Resettlement Forum – a Wellington-based, non-profit organization that supports refugee background migrants’ resettlement processes.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you Judah for your enlightened views. I am a conservator at Te Papa and also a student at Vic Uni.
    Would love to chat with your writing and thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *