Language: An Important Social and Cultural Marker of Identity

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Presented at the Language as a Social Justice Issue Conference. Held on the 26th November, 2014 at Edith Cowan University, Joondalup Campus, Perth, Western Australia.


Language presents us with two functions to consider: one being an instrument of communication and the other as a way of asserting a person’s or nations identity or distinctiveness from another, accepting the argument that language is intrinsic to the expression of culture. This paper explores the later function. Language may be the viewed as the ‘mechanical glue’ proposed by Durkheim (Ballantine & Roberts, 2013) that holds a society together through shared social bonds formed by homogeneity of language being for Australia, English, even though Australia is a multicultural and linguistically diverse nation with over two hundred community languages. Thus it argues members of society do not need to speak this common language as they may use their own community language but as English is the dominate language they will collectively lay claim to it in order to assert a symbolic national identity distinguishing them from other nations. Culture is perceived as a society’s software, which is cumulative and ongoing and adapts and evolves over time with members having multiple identities and having membership to multiple subgroups in society. As such evolution takes place, new societal and cultural identities are formed. As such the paper argues language can be a robust marker of social and cultural identity at many levels in society (Jaspal, 2009) with the capability of binding and dividing groups in society. However the loss of language, through either lack of opportunities for maintenance or as a deliberate policy of suppression by the dominate language affects a person’s and a nation’s cultural heritage and social identity. Examining language as an important social and cultural marker of identity through a language rights approach, this paper then presents the case that for continuation of a cohesive national identity; preservation of community languages is critical and is not a threat to national unity.

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