A person’s culture is influenced and shaped by many different factors, and the language they speak is one of the most important. It is also true that a person’s language is affected by their culture. Eskimos have many words for the term “snow,” while the majority of other cultures use only one. It is possible to determine many things about a culture by their use of language. If a culture does not have a word to describe a specific feeling or emotion, for instance, it is likely that that concept holds little meaning to them or that they do not acknowledge it at all. Even in the United States, which values itself as a “melting pot” where people of many different cultures live side by side, there are certain concepts common in other cultures that do not have English translations.
My family is from China, and Chinese is my first language. I understand that language much more easily than I understand English, especially when the English being used is slang or not meant to be taken literally. I dream in Chinese and I think in Chinese, translating my thoughts into English as necessary to the situation or audience I am talking to. To me, Chinese is a beautiful language that makes perfect sense, while English is full of contradictions and language and spelling rules that are hard to learn and remember. English still does not make much sense to me, I must admit.
One way that my language and culture are related is in how I think about and talk to people who are older than I am. In China, older people are respected for everything that they have learned during their many years of living. The Chinese language has special words for addressing a person who is older than the person talking to them. These words are used to show respect. I have noticed that there aren’t any words like that in the English language and that people here do not seem to respect those older than they are. I believe that these two things are related. There are no English terms of respect for the old because Americans do not respect the old the way that the Chinese do. The Chinese words can be translated into English (they translate roughly to “valued aunt” or “valued uncle”) but I never hear an American person saying anything like that when they talk to a person who is older than they are. This is something I do not understand about my new American culture, and also something that I do not think I will ever be able to change in myself. Respecting my elders is an important part of both my language and my culture.
I sometimes wonder how long it will take for me to stop thinking about ideas in Chinese first and then translating them before I speak. I wonder if when that happens if I will start thinking more like someone who is an American first and Chinese second, or if I will stop believing things that I have been taught and love about my Chinese culture. My Chinese culture is a very important part of who I am, and I never want to lose it. I want to be able to fit in with my American friends, and there are some parts of American culture that I enjoy more than some parts of Chinese culture, but Chinese will always be my first language and primary culture. I hope that it is possible to get better at the English language without losing any of my Chinese culture.