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Language, Identity and Cultural Difference Essay

According to Hall (1997a), enunciation theories suggest that even though we may talk of ourselves from our experiences, the person who speaks and the subject being spoken of are never identical. Identity in this regard is to be conceived as a production which is never complete- “always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation”- (Hall, 1997a) as opposed to viewing it as a complete fact which is then represented by the new cultural practices. However, this view shakes the legitimacy and authority upon which the term cultural identity bases its claim.

There are two ways in which cultural identity can be thought of. The first view sees it in terms of a single shared culture, some kind of a collective ‘one true self’ that is hiding inside many other more artificially imposed selves that people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common (Hall, 1997b). Within this view of description of cultural identity, our cultural identities mirrors those historical experiences that we hold in common and the shared cultural codes which offer us as a people, a stable, immutable and continuous frames of reference and meaning, under the shifting classes and fluctuations of our actual history (Hall, 1997a).

Singapore was envisioned by her leaders as a multiethnic society in which the constituent ethnic groups shared participation in common institutions while at the same time retaining their distinct languages, customs and religions. The ethnic categories represented self-evident, natural groups that would continue their existence into the indefinite future. Singaporean identity therefore implies being an Indian, a Chinese, or a Malay but in relation to other groups. This model of ethnicity demands the denial of important internal variations for each ethnic group and the recognition of differences between the categories (Tsui & Tollefson, 2007).

The second view of cultural identity recognizes that there are similarities and important differences which make up what we really are. We cannot persistently refer with exactness to one experience and one identity without recognizing the other dimension. This other dimension represents the rifts and discontinuities that comprise cultural uniqueness.

In this second sense, cultural identity is viewed as an issue of both “becoming” and “being”, something that belongs to the future as much as it belongs to the past. Cultural identities in this regard have histories and therefore changes constantly. In other words, cultural identities are subject to the uninterrupted play of history, culture and power (Hall, 1997a). Identity is the name given to the different ways we are placed, and put ourselves within the tale of the past.

This second conception of cultural identity is more disturbing and less familiar. How can the formation of identity be understood if does not proceed from a straight line or a fixed origin? The Singaporean identity can be thought of as composed of two vectors that operate simultaneously. These are the vectors of rift and difference, and similarity and continuity.

The Singaporean identity can be seen with regard to the relationship between the two vectors.  Similarity and continuity brings to fore the realization that it is the experience of fundamental discontinuity that the Indians, Malays and Chinese share and among these are immigration, colonization and Asian origin. It is therefore interesting to look at how the concept of identity, language and cultural differences were created and how these concepts are related within the context of Singapore. The analysis herein presented will be based in Hall’s view of the link between language, identity and cultural difference.

Relationship between Language, Identity and Cultural Difference

The relationship between language, culture and identity has emerged to be a hotly contested topic in social sciences. The questions that mainly arise concern the apparent difference between cultural and ethnic identity. Are these types of identities similar or should they be differentiated conceptually. Various scholars hold varying views on the role of language in the definition of one’s identity. A major question that one may be compelled to ask is whether a culture or ethnic group can be considered to be unique if it does not have its own language or in the least its own rendition of a common tongue.

Cultural identity is universal whether it is expressed with regard to humanity or otherwise since people from every part of the world are conscious of some kind of specificity that sets them apart from others. In contrast, ethnic identity only appear to take place within complex societies when it seems functional to separate individuals into categories founded upon something other than age, gender or occupation. Ethnicity is associated with cultural identity since one must make reference to cultural, linguistic or religious particularities in order to categorize individuals.

According to Hall (1997b), culture is produced by representation. Culture concerns shared meaning and the medium through which we make sense out of things is through the use of language. It is through language that meaning is produced and exchanged. The only mechanism of sharing meaning is through a common access to language. In this regard, language is fundamental to meaning and culture and has always been conceived as the major bank of cultural values and meanings.

However, one may be compelled to ask how meaning is constructed through language. According to Hall (1997b), language constructs meaning via its operation as a representational system. Language is one of the mechanisms through which ideas, thoughts and feelings are represented in culture. In this regard, representation through language is fundamental to the processes through which meaning is produced.

Our sense of identity is derived from meaning and therefore meaning is linked with questions about how we use culture to define and maintain identity and difference within and between groups. In every social and personal relationship in which we participate, meaning is constantly being produced. Meaning is also produced through our expression in and consumption of relevant cultural materials.

Our conducts and practices are also regulated and organized by meaning which help in the setting of rules, norms and conventions upon which social life is ordered and governed. The question of identity therefore emerges in relation to various other divergent moments or practices within the cultural circuits; in our construction of identity and the defining of difference, in the production and consumption and in the regulation of social conduct. In all these instances, language is one of the most important medium through which we produce and circulate meaning.


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