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People that have multilingual background face complex issues in adapting and assimilating their language to cultural identity that they want to be identified with. People create their linguistic structure so as to bear a resemblance to those of the group with which from time to time they wish to identify. Cultural identity is defined as the product of social and historical background that is constructed when an individual categorize themselves a group, in addition to social context and ethnically accustomed communicative structures in a particular society (Jung and Lee,2004). Language serves as a tool that embraces one's identity and operates as a mean of uniting a cultural community that share the same collective identity.
In the process of identity formation, language functions as a tool that holds the cultural identity that the language resembles. Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, an African scholar and Kenyan author claims that "language is a carrier of culture" (cited in Ka'ili and Ka'ili). He explains that the distinctiveness qualities that a culture possessed for example, its own value, custom, principles, faith, ideologies and the ways of life are embed in its own language. Ka'ili and Ka'ili (1998) gives an example about the relationship between language and identity that is embedded in a culture of faka'apa'apa to the variety of status in Tongan social hierarchy; this cultural customs is conceded in the Tongan language of respect. A Tongan speaker will utilize variety form of Tongan speech to express the level of faka'apa'apa that is ethnically suitable for the person ones is speaking to. This illustration demonstrate the role that language play in the process of identity formation.
Lanehart (1996) in her article alleges that "language is a part of one's culture and identity". In the article, Laneheart explains the connection between language and identity and how they are related with each other. She claims that "our identities emerge from our transaction" which is develop within a culture, whither language is essential. Lanehart relates language and identity through the concept of "language goals" where people construct their language structure so as to bear similitude with the cluster they want to identify with and want to become. As an African American, she gives her view based on her social experience where she explains the dilemma that African Americans face when they try to incorporate their language to cultural identity that they want to identified with. Social perception that equates the choice to speak Standard English as trying to be White creates a dilemma in most people that have multilingual background. This perception and situation demonstrate that there is a significant connection between language and identity formation.
However, the role as a cultural identity that the language play is debatable because there are some cases when the individuals does not identify themselves as a group in particular ethnic even though they master the language of that ethnic. Jung and Lee (2004) in their study about the ethnic identities of Korean American students found that most of their research subjects identify themselves as a person that has a strong Korean background although they are fluent in English and were born in U.S. They identify themselves as either Korean American or Korean, but not American. This is the outcome of strong influence of Korean community that is ethnically oriented. In this context, we can see two forces that drive the changes and divergences identity formation: structures and agency. Structure is "the forces beyond our control which shape our identities" while agency is "the degree control which we ourselves can exert who we are" (The Open University, 2010). Ones cannot choose the language that they are born with because of the structure forces; however, as time goes by, identities changes as a result of agency factor such as media, environment and social pressure and this induce a person to make changes in which language and cultural identities they want to identify with. Open University (2010) asserts that "identities are not fixed and constant; they change too". It can be concludes that language is not the only tools that embrace identity; there are some other external factors that helps the process of identity formation.
Language also works as a mean of connecting a cultural community that share the same collective identity. Collective identity refers to sense of belonging when an individual identify themselves to a group or nation (Open University, 2010). Ka'ili and Ka'ili (1998) claims that when an individual speak their mother tongue language with their peers, they are a sense of relationship, unity and bond that make the cultural community more connected with each other. Research that was conducted by Jung and Lee (2004) found out that Korean language is the agent that unites the Korean Americans cultural community. Even though there is a type of student whom did not really engage with Korean cultural activities, this type of students still typically hangs out with Korean peers because they feel cultural disparity when they communicate with American peers. Ghose (2010) supports the idea of unity that language plays in identity formation in his article and he stresses that "language serves as a mean of unifying the country". If the role of language in uniting a cultural community is analyzed in a different perspective, language can act as a tool that divides the people in a cultural community. Goose (2010), Lanehart (1996) and Ka'ili and Ka'ili (1998) share the same opinion about this idea. They critique the society obsession with Standard English and how English have eroded the cultural identity of their culture. For example, many Tongans see the Tongan language as an obstruction to their academic and economic development; they favored English language more than the Tongan language.
Freire and Macedo (1987, 128) highlight that "language should never be understood as a mere tool of communication" (cited in Lanehart). Without doubt, language plays a significant role in the formation of cultural identity. It also acts as tool to unite the people in one cultural community that share the same collective identity. We often do not realize how much language has impacted our life. So, it is important for us to value our language because it carries our cultural, historical and social identity. Without a language, ones will lose its own identity.