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The White Hindu has moved! This blog is no longer updated, but Ambaa is still writing The White Hindu every weekday at

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Culture and Language

One of the things that makes me so excited to learn a new language is that I know that languages are not just codes of one another. It's not that you memorize the word for this and the word for that in another language, then put it together and you're done.

Languages are connected to thought and to culture. The way a language expresses something is indicative of its way of seeing the world. A new language means a new way to see the world. You Are What You Speak

Some people who are multilingual talk about being comfortable with different things in different languages. For example, emotions they prefer to speak about in their native language. Last night I was watching an Indian movie and a couple of fathers were trying to discuss a marriage in English, but one says, "You want to talk business? Talk business in Gujrati."

I've been reading lately the idea that one of the challenges to becoming billingual is a deep-seated fear that as we use the new language and leave our native one behind, that we feel we are losing a part of our culture. As The White Indian Housewife said in her blog entry after reading Dreaming in Hindi:

I just don’t want to learn Hindi anymore, or even speak it much. My mother in law accuses me of having forgotten my Hindi. I haven’t though. It’s just reluctant to come out!
This has disturbed me and left me wondering why. However, much to my relief the book offers some explanation. As the author says, when we learn a language, we learn an entire culture. There comes a point where that culture starts taking over. And in order for that to happen, you must give up some of your own culture. Learning a new language also changes the way your brain thinks and operates.
I think my problem stems from the fact that I’ve been in India for quite a long time now (it will be five years in December!), and I’ve adapted so much to Indian culture that I’m fighting to retain my own culture. In the beginning, I almost tried to become Indian to fit in. I took it very seriously. Now that fitting in (as much as possible!) comes quite naturally to me, I’m starting to feel like I’ve lost a part of myself.

I guess I'm not far along in Hindi yet to notice anything like that. So far, I love Hindi and I love speaking it. Of course, I don't live in India either, so there isn't much danger of me losing touch with my Americaness.

Two concerns I do have are that 1) I keep being told that text book Hindi is not what people really speak which makes me worry that I'm wasting my time and makes keeping my motivation up very difficult and 2) some of the blogs of moms raising bilingual children in a non-native language talk about the fear of not fully connecting to their children because they are not sharing their native tongue with them and are only relating to them through a second language. I reassure myself that 1) once I have text book Hindi down, it will be easy to modify into colloquial and 2) I can stop this bilingual idea with my kids any time if it is not feeling right. Also, I will be speaking English with them outside of our home.

But the fear of losing my own sense of culture? Not there at all. Then again, one of my problems has been that I don't feel like I have a culture.

I have seen some people arguing for and against the idea that there is an American culture. I suppose that there is. Maybe I'm too close to it to see that it exists. I don't feel any connection to it, in any case.

Here are two perspectives on white American culture. The first is from MissTam4 at, the knitting website. This is something she said in response to talking about children who are half white and half black relating to the culture of their white parent:

I’m white. I couldn’t possibly care less about being white or if my kids are white. I have no “culture” to speak of other than the normal “American” type culture that we all have (whatever race we are, as Americans)...As white people, we really do not have a “culture” or any kind of “solidarity”. The only solidarity white people have as a group is, frankly, the desire to exclude all others. Unless your husband has a specific national culture that he wants to pass on, (e.g. his family is recently immigrated from somewhere and the culture of that country is still strong in his family) there really isn’t anything TO pass on to his children regarding their whiteness. On the other hand, if your family is like most black families I know, YOU have a rich and wonderful American sub-culture to pass on to your children. It gives them a sense of belonging and solidarity and history that white folk simply DO NOT HAVE. .. I’m American. I’m white. So what? The only culture or history I have or care about is the same stuff every kid will learn in school- Columbus, Pilgrims, Revolutionary War, Abe Lincoln, McDonald’s, blue jeans, apple pie.

Gori Girl has a wonderful essay about cultural identity and whether Indian culture is any richer than American culture. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but here is one relevant bit:

Let’s get one thing straight: cultures – all cultures – are constantly changing. And by culture here, I mean “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a society” – i.e. culture is the sum of all learned human behaviors in a particular society. What one generation learns from the previous will change as a society adapts to different conditions. The rate of the change that a culture goes through will generally vary based on the internal and external conditions or pressures a society faces, such as technological innovation, changing resources, and contact with other cultures.
For example, most Americans today would not be able to survive for very long in the wild, but the pioneers in the early days of our nation certainly could and did. As “frontier America” transformed into towns and cities knowing how to live off the land became a less important skill than those that allowed you to work in an office or factory in town...It’s not that culture continuity requires that a culture stays the same – that’s impossible – just that certain central aspects of a culture, such as particular beliefs or traditions, remain. To return to the example of “living off the land” in the US, while most Americans can’t survive out in the wild, there remains an ethos of individuality in American culture: a belief that a person should be able to stand on his own two feet without help from others or the government, just as pioneers were required to do.

I wonder, if I did manage to integrate myself into an Indian way of life within America if I would start missing something or feel like I had given up part of myself.

Personally I am of the school of thought that American culture is not very rich. Not yet, anyway. We are still a very young country and our culture is still developing.

Many ethnic groups in America do keep their own wonderful traditions and I know that I strongly felt the lack of that growing up. I was jealous of my best friend's Jewish traditions.

Part of the problem may also have been that I don't relate to a lot of the things that might be considered American culture. As I've said before, participating in Indian culture has felt like coming home to me, has felt so natural and so right.

EDITED TO ADD: Another perspective on this that I just found at a blog called Big, Bad, Blonde Bahu Blog She talks about her Catholic culture and her distaste for people saying that India is better because it has more culture.


  1. Ooh I am loving your blog - am going to have to catch up on all of it when I have more time - have only read about three so far. The Hindi thing is difficult - I have had different guidance from different people - usually depending on location - and also depending on formality. Plus, there just seem to be some difference. And, most of the resources I have found have some errors that even I can see - this includes one for my iPhone, and livemocha as well - so keep on getting discouraged.

  2. I'm so glad you're here!

    I get discouraged because people keep saying that text book Hindi isn't how people really talk. Well, I decided to keep going forward anyway and get as much input as possible, preferably from native sources. I watch Hindi movies without subtitles and read Hindi kids books from India. I figure eventually I'll be able to get good enough to sort out the good from the bad!

  3. We white Americans do have a very strong culture, but one part of our culture is something called white normativity. We see whites having values, not culture. Brown, black, and yellow people have culture in our eyes. We aren't doing culture, we are just being. Well, that is a huge myth. We have just as much culture as the rest of humanity. Our white Americanness often becomes apparent to use for a variety of reasons. A main one: we have intersections with people of other cultures and we are sometimes introspective enough to realize that our way isn't normal/lack of culture while Other's way is culture. Like when we go and live abroad, or due to an intermarriage or a close friendship with a person from a different background.

    About language as culture, language is indeed a vehicle of culture, like food, religion, values, etc. However, culture is also the way in which we view the world. I don't think these things become immediately apparent even if one becomes fluent in a foreign language. There is linguistic competence and then cultural competence. This is why English-fluent foreigners still seem awkward or different to us and why we seem that way to them when we learn their languages. I do think speaking the language does bring you deeper within the culture. However, it doesn't make you understand everything about the culture. Even with a lot of effort made, there is always more to learn. Language is definitely a gateway, though.