American HS “The Bluest Eye” Selma Erdogdu 1st Essay WS10/11 MichaelElberth
The importance of language in cross-cultural identity production as presented in Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
At the centre of Julia Alvarez’s novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents stands the Dominican girl Yolanda, who moved to America as a youth. Since then, she has often been back in the Dominican Republic to visit her family and maintain a close link to her cultural origin. Yolanda’s identity is strongly influenced by the two cultures, which makes her a cultural hybrid. This essay will show the important role that language plays in the production of cross-cultural identity as can be seen in the development of Yolanda. Furthermore, the essay will only focus on her English language development in the American environment, excluding the scenes where Yolanda is back in the Dominican Republic for visits.
First of all, it is necessary to look at the notion of identity itself, before talking about identity construction in Alvarez’s novel. According to the sociologist Stuart Hall, identity should be seen as a “’production’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation ” (Hall: 392). Hence, as language is a crucial means of representation, it should play a very important part in identity construction. Additionally, it should be emphasised that, as identity is a dynamic concept, it is sometimes hard to give clear definitions of it.
Yolanda, who moves to New York with her family, experiences many changes in the way she feels and represents herself, when the English language suddenly becomes the major way of communication in her life. The representation of personality has an impact on the identity construction of a person. Yolanda’s life in the US is strongly influenced by her experiences in school and public life. The following quote indicates the importance of the English language in her development:
“Back in the Dominican Republic growing up, Yoyo had been a terrible student. No one could ever get her to sit down to a book. But in New York, she needed to settle somewhere, and since the natives were unfriendly, and the country inhospitable, she took root in the language.” (Alvarez: 141)
Yolanda has to face a new cultural environment in America while still growing up and undergoing major developments in her identity. When she was a child, Yolanda already got into contact with America and the English language receiving “a book of stories in English [she] could barely read” (Alvarez: 229). Some relatives talked to the children “in English so that they get practice” (Alvarez: 210) and Yolanda and her sisters even attended an American school on the island. This early contact with the English language builds the basis for later communication in English.
Nevertheless, the function of the English language changes completely when Yolanda arrives in America. Suddenly, the language is not just a school subject, but the most important means to express and communicate herself. In her first American school, Yolanda experiences favoured treatment by the nuns who were curious about the origin of the “only immigrant in [the] class” (Alvarez: 166). The positive environment consequently helps her with learning new, important words she needs to communicate and understand the people around her. Moreover, Yolanda constantly learns “new vocabulary” (Alvarez: 167) in school and in public life. The new registers of words are linked to the new impressions and experiences Yolanda makes and help her to make sense ofher new life.
Unfortunately, her language caused negative situations as well. She and her sisters also get bullied and called “spics” (Alvarez: 171) because of their origin. This treatment is closely linked to the issue of language as well, as in that sense language builds a barrier and reveals her Dominican descent. For the other children, her language makes her “the Other” (Said: 1) in America. In school she is required to express her Dominican identity with the English language and this representation itself of Yolanda’s self plays a part in constructing her identity (cf. Hall). This struggle lowers Yolanda's self-esteem and leads her to questioning her identity.
Despite that, Yolanda “took root in the [English] language”. This is due to the fact that she needs the language to communicate herself (feelings, ideas, values, etc.). The desire for expressing herself is an essential feature of the majority of human beings. Motivated by her mother, who speaks English nearly without an accent, Yolanda dives into the English language more and more. The climax is reached, when inspired by Whitman, Yolanda “start[s] to write recklessly” (Alvarez: 143) and suddenly becomes able to appropriate the language in order to express herself almost naturally. After having written a teacher’s address for school and reading it again, “[Yolanda] finally sounded like herself in English” (Alvarez: 143). By then, Yolanda has reached a level of English proficiency that allows her to express her feelings and ideas the way she intends it. Thus, for the first time she is able to fully express her ‘self’, in other words her identity in America.
- Quote paper
- Michael Elberth (Author), 2010, The importance of language in cross-cultural identity production, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/164444