Baldwin and Stavans

Language is affected by race, identity, culture, and reality. It is a key component to one’s identity. It reveals the characteristics of the speaker. Without language, one would be unable to express feelings, thoughts, or ideas to others; one would experience loneliness, isolation –“death.” In James Baldwin’s If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell me, What Is? Baldwin reveals the way language shapes and is formed by life’s circumstances. In Ilan Stavans’ essay Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language, Stavans reveals the influence culture has on language. Through culture and life circumstances people adapt language to keep from being submerged in situations where they cannot articulate.

Culture affects how language is used, it allows one to identify with or separate from a different culture. Baldwin reveals this when he writes, “Language…is the most vivid and crucial key to identity, it reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity” (Baldwin 93). Baldwin reveals how important a language either sets people apart or brings a people together. If a southern person comes to the north, they are automatically “divorced” from the public identity. They eventually try to adapt their language to fit in with the larger community. In Baldwin’s essay blacks adapted English to communicate with each other, this is just one example of how culture affects language.

People mend their native language with English to bring what they understand together with what they do not understand, in doing this they maintain their native culture and meld it to their new one. Stavans speaks about this when he writes, “As an immigrant, my road to full participation in American life was—as it has been and continues to be for any immigrant, regardless the origin—through English” (Stavans 100). Some Immigrants speak through a relative or friend in order to communicate. Slowly they began to understand and use English; until they were able to speak on their own. In Stavans’ essay, Spanglish serves as the connection to the American way of life for the people who spoke limited English.

Baldwin describes the purpose of language and how it used to control reality. “People evolve a language in order to describe, and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a situation that they cannot articulate” (Baldwin 92). Baldwin explains that language evolves so people can understand and communicate with each other. Thus, allowing people to participate in something greater than themselves and give people a sense of belonging that every human being craves. For example, when an immigrant comes to America and cannot speak English, they are immersed in situations where they cannot communicate with others, without some kind of interpretation, they are lost—“submerged.” Baldwin give details about a moment in time when a family member spoke to him in a language, Black English, that a white man couldn’t understand, in order to warn him about a danger he was in. Therefore, people adapt to their circumstances, they meld what they understand with what they do not.

Circumstances may present situations where to use a language is unsafe. Baldwin speaks about this when he writes, “There have been, and are, times and places, when to speak a certain language could be dangerous, even fatal” (Baldwin 93). For example, In Iraq it is very dangerous to speak English because it reveals that one is from a western culture. Speaking English in a region of Iraq where insurgents are known to occupy exposes one to hostility, torture, mutilation, and death if taken hostage by insurgents. In the news this past year an American Iraqi teenager took a journey to Iraq, while shopping at a market in Baghdad he did not speak the Iraqi language, Arabic, he spoke English, immediately he stood out, the people around him knew that he was not from the same culture as they were, even though he looked like them, he did not speak like them. After realizing his mistake he found safety. This is just one example of how circumstances can present a situation where the use of a language is dangerous.

Stavans talks about how culture and circumstance affected one of his students, Lisa Martinez. Lisa, an East Los Angeles native and ex gang member, felt disconnected from her true self. Lisa, “nostalgic for la casa” felt out of place in Amherst, Massachusetts. Stavans reveals to the reader the personal conflict that Lisa was going through while attending college. “..Lisa felt disoriented…anxious to finish and return home. She also expressed her ambivalence at being an affirmative action student, enticed to the place by a fellowship, but often looked at suspiciously by her Anglo counterparts because her skin color…and her ethnic idiosyncrasy” (Stavans 101) Lisa dealt with her circumstances by adapting her language even thought she did not like doing so, she conformed. She spoke the language of the academic culture in which she was a part. The culture shock that she experienced made her feel out of place; she craved to be around people who accepted her. She yearned for home. Cultural differences can affect how one feels about adapting language.

People use language to express thoughts, ideas, and feelings with others. Without language or the ability to express one self, one would be isolated; left out, submerged, According to Baldwin they would experience “death”. Baldwin reveals this to the reader when he writes, “What joins all language, and all men, is the necessity to confront life, in order, not inconceivably, to outwit death” (Baldwin 93). All human beings have the need to interact with other human beings, without this capability they would experience separation, isolation—“death”. Through out life, people experience situations where they adapted their language in order to fit in to a different culture than their own.

Through culture and life’s circumstances people adapt their language to keep from being drowned in situations where they cannot express themselves. Language is affected by culture and reality. Without language, one would be unable to express their thoughts, ideas, and emotions with others. Baldwin makes known the struggles Africans face when they were brought to America, and the way they melded their language together to create Black English. In Stavans’ essay he reveals the influence; specifically Spanish culture has on language. Both Baldwin and Stavans prove that through culture and life circumstances that people must adapt in order to remain articulate.

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