The importance of culture, language and identity

Understanding others makes possible a better knowledge of oneself: any form of identity is complex, for individuals are defined in relation to other people – both individually and collectively – and the various groups to which they owe allegiance, in a constantly shifting pattern.
UNESCO, Learning : The Treasure Within, 1996

Understanding and valuing cultural diversity are the keys to countering racism. All individuals must feel free to explore the uniqueness of their culture and identity while developing understandings of the cultural diversity that exists in the world around them. Denying cultural expression means limiting the expression of unique perspectives on life and the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation. 

Culture is a defining feature of a person’s identity, contributing to how they see themselves and the groups with which they identify. Culture may be broadly defined as the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings, which is transmitted from one generation to another. Every community, cultural group or ethnic group has its own values, beliefs and ways of living.

The observable aspects of culture such as food, clothing, celebrations, religion and language are only part of a person’s cultural heritage. The shared values, customs and histories characteristic of culture shape the way a person thinks, behaves and views the world. A shared cultural heritage bonds the members of the group together and creates a sense of belonging through community acceptance.

Language is intrinsic to the expression of culture. As a means of communicating values, beliefs and customs, it has an important social function and fosters feelings of group identity and solidarity. It is the means by which culture and its traditions and shared values may be conveyed and preserved.

Language is fundamental to cultural identity. This is so for people everywhere. For Bininj, their unique world is expressed in their language. For this reason, it is important that people keep their own language alive.
Kakadu National Park, Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, NT

Cultural and linguistic diversity is a feature of most nations today as people from different groups live together as a consequence of historical events and human migrations. Within multilingual societies, the maintenance of the languages of the various ethnic and cultural groups is critical for the preservation of cultural heritage and identity. The loss of language means the loss of culture and identity. In many societies throughout history, the suppression of the languages of minority groups has been used as a deliberate policy in order to suppress those minority cultures. As a result a large number of the world’s languages have been lost with the processes of colonisation and migration. [2]

As languages disappear, cultures die. The world becomes inherently a less interesting place, but we also sacrifice raw knowledge and the intellectual achievements of millennia.
Ken Hale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, quoted in Davis, W. 1999.

Australia is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse nations in the world. This diversity has always been embedded in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies and has been broadened over the last two hundred years with the arrival of people from over one hundred and fifty distinct cultures from around the world.

While English is the dominant language, many people speak a language other than English as their first language within their families and communities. Over two hundred languages other than English are spoken in Australia today. The acquisition of proficiency in Standard Australian English, together with the maintenance of community languages is therefore a significant issue in Australia.

Proficiency in English is critical for successful participation in Australian society and for exchanging information about the values and perspectives of different cultures. Similarly, proficiency in first language skills is essential for self-enrichment and expression of identity.

In large parts of Australia, the loss of a great number of Aboriginal languages [3] means that for many Aboriginal people, Aboriginal English is their first language and is a particular marker of identity. Aboriginal English developed as a means of communication for Aboriginal people between people of different language groups and with non-Aboriginal people. Torres Strait Creole is similarly an important marker of identity for Torres Strait Islander people and is used as a common language among speakers of different Torres Strait languages. Both Aboriginal English and Torres Strait Creole are spoken as a first or second language by many Indigenous Australians.

The maintenance of a community’s first language is also a significant issue for many people who belong to diverse ethnic communities whose members, or their ancestors, have migrated to Australia. The use of community languages is important both for individual and group identity and for communication across generations. In an increasingly globalised world, linguistic skills strengthen international ties and foster cultural exchange. Linguistic diversity makes Australia more competitive in trade and strengthens its international standing.

An individual’s sense of identity is grounded in their cultural identity.

I have… come to the conclusion that my identity does not have to be static. Sometimes, I feel Spanish and I like to identify with the Spanish culture while at other times I choose to reinforce my German, Irish-Anglo background. In many ways the two identities have become interwoven. A part of me is expressed through speaking Spanish and singing Spanish songs which is not expressed through speaking English or playing classical music… each language I speak and each music tradition I engage in carries with it a different world of meanings.
Student respondent, quoted in Smolicz, et. al., 1998.

A person’s understanding of their own and others’ cultural identity develops from birth and is shaped by the values and attitudes prevalent at home and in the surrounding community. This identity becomes more complex and fluid over time as people develop allegiances to different groups within the broader society. At the same time, cultures themselves are not static but develop and change as the belief systems and ways of life of different groups adapt under other cultural influences including mass media and popular culture to create new identities. In a culturally diverse society like Australia, individuals may have multiple identities through identification with several different sub-cultures. These identities may include identity based on cultural heritage, family or birthplace; religious or social identity; and identity as members of Australian society.

The realisation that there are many Australian identities reinforces the need for mutual understanding for achieving a racism-free community. Reconciliation, which aims to encourage co-operation and improve relations between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and the wider community, is critical in this process. The understanding of how history has shaped our relationship with each other and respect for each other’s cultures are key components of the Reconciliation process.

The policy of multiculturalism is equally vital in achieving a cohesive Australian nation. It recognises and values Australia’s cultural and linguistic diversity and accepts and respects the right of all Australians to express and share their individual cultural heritage within an overriding commitment to Australia.

The mistrust and fear of difference which often stem from isolation from other cultures can be overcome by fostering cultural understanding and by highlighting the common interests that all Australians share. Working together, Australians can achieve a more equal and fairer society that respects and values its diversity.

  • [2] It has been estimated that approximately 10,000 spoken languages have existed. Today, only about 6,000 languages are still spoken and many of these are not being taught to children. More than half of these languages are unlikely to survive the next century. See W. Davis, ‘Vanishing Cultures’, in National Geographic, vol. 196, no. 2, pp. 62-89, 1999.
  • [3] See A. Schmidt, The Loss of Australia’s Indigenous Language Heritage, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1990. Today, approximately ninety Aboriginal languages are spoken but only twenty are in a relatively healthy state, that is, they are being transmitted to and used by children.

Understanding racism – What is racism? : The importance of culture, language and identity : The extent of racism in Australian schools : References : Glossary