On an intuitive level, one may identify themselves with a particular or singular speech community to which one belongs. This is understandable, as we tend to think of ourselves in individual terms, and therefore, as constantly expressing a singular “voice.” Nevertheless, the value of an exercise such as analyzing the history of our speech community is that it dissolves some of these preconceptions about how we utilize language. Namely, language itself is very heterogeneous, as demonstrated by the fact that within a singular language as identified by linguists numerous dialects may exist. Language itself is made even more heterogeneous by how it is used in very specific social settings. For example, the type of language one uses may differ depending upon the social setting one is engaged in: we do not talk the same way with our old friends as we do in a highly formal and structuralized setting. The analysis of my own speech history has revealed precisely the diversity of linguistic influences that have shaped and informed my language use.
It is in this regard that I can consider myself lucky to have such a diverse speech history, in so far as it is comprised of three distinct groups that I can readily identify, as well as crossing two specific languages. The first speech community to which I belong is that of my family and the people from my hometown. These were my earliest initiations into a speech language community, as within the family and hometown setting we spoke a version of Arabic that was native to the area. This was what we could call my “natural” speech community, in the sense it was in this context that I clearly first learned to talk and was introduced into language itself. This has undoubtedly had a highly informative and dominant role in own speech history, a speech community that shaped my approach to language itself, not only in terms of the language I was born into, i.e., my mother tongue, but also of how language is used.
A second key speech community that influenced me heavily was the result of me attending school in a city other than my hometown. Here, there were immediate differences in dialect, which subsequently informed my way of speaking. Being a young age, I also learned this dialect and began to speak in this dialect with my schoolmates from this city. This was an advantage for me, as I was able to understand diverse ways of speaking Arabic from a very early age and was essentially a part of two speech communities within the greater Arabic language family. At the same time, however, I did notice that this did create some difficulties for me, for example, in terms of socializing with friends from my hometown and the city where I attended school. At times I used very specific fragments of dialect from my hometown in the city context, as well as vice versa. This is a negative aspect of being exposed to so many speech communities, as there is a certain sense in which one is not fully integrated into a particular speech community because of the individual’s diverse speech history. Nevertheless, this also reflects the dynamic and diverse nature of language, whereby dialects are still clearly identifiable, even on a city by city basis, between speakers of the same language. This attests to the fact that although speech history implies an element of the “past”, speech history is something dynamic and changing, in so far as we are constantly introduced to new forms of language and essentially new ways of speaking, even within the context of a singular language.
The third crucial element of my speech history was my introduction to an English speech community. This occurred from an early age, as from the first grade onwards I studied English in school. This was clearly a radically different speech community than the two speech communities grounded in Arabic, as this was now a completely different language. Although at an early age, however, one learns language on an unconscious level, these differences may not be so pronounced: nevertheless, there was a clear “starting from the beginning” involved in studying English for the first time, even although at the early first grade level. This was my first exposure to a non-Arabic speech and therefore broadened my horizons with regard to the possibilities of language and the different forms of communicating. Nevertheless, as many students of foreign languages know, there is a tremendous difference between learning a foreign language in a school setting in a different country and hearing this foreign language spoken, practiced and lived in the country where this language originates. In other words, the educational experience cannot re-create the total immersion into a foreign language that one can only gain by living in the place where this language is, as it were, a living entity.
This was one of the first things I noticed when I arrived in the United States. The English I had been taught in the Arabic school system was radically different to the English I heard on the streets of the United States. Some of the reasons for this difference are logical. Firstly, when one studies a language in school, one is taught the grammatically correct or standard form of this language. Of course, how people speak a given language, even among native speakers, can often completely differ from this standard form, as the existence of dialects in every language indicates. Secondly, languages are living entities, changing all the time, with, for example, the addition of new words and new phrases. When one studies a foreign language in a school, one is studying a certain “snapshot” of this language, how it exists at a certain stage of development, with particular words meaning particular things, and particular ways of expressing oneself. Language, however, is continually evolving and thus the speech community of my English education and the speech community of an Anglophone country are entirely different.
Despite some of these difficulties, I consider myself fortunate to be a part of a diverse history of speech communities. I have learned to appreciate other forms of communication through this experience, while I have also learned to communicate in diverse manners.